While the nightly news and the major newspapers stir themselves into a frenzy over mostly trivia, real problems continue to fester:
North Korea has nuclear weapons.
Three administrations (Clinton, Bush, Obama) believed that negotiations and agreements would change the minds of the government in Pyongyang. They were wrong.
The leader of North Korea, Kim Jung Un, third member of the Kim dynasty, ruling North Korea since 1948, is a demonstrably vicious ruler who uses execution and assassination to solidify control. He isn’t, however, “crazy.” Evil and without any morals, yes. But, coldly rational. On 13 February he had his half-brother assassinated using a nerve agent. This sends an interesting signal: he has VX, and he demonstrated an ability to move it surreptitiously into another country (Malaysia).
Further, Kim views nuclear weapons as key to survival. He won’t surrender them.
The only acceptable long-term solution is unification, the entire peninsula transforming into a greater Republic of Korea. The Kim regime’s despotic rule over the north must end. But getting there is the problem. There are few options: the regime collapses from its own internal problems; a coup, country-wide collapse, or revolt by some force external to the regime but internal to the country; or war.
Obviously, we need to prevent war. A second Korean War would be catastrophic, even without the use of nuclear weapons. We must arrive at some situation where the Kim regime is gone, and the ROK can manage an orderly transition into a unified, free republic encompassing all of Korea. But how?
The standard responses (for multiple administrations) has been along two lines: 1) impose sanctions, and 2) work with China, China can control them. Two thoughts occur: 1) Clearly, the sanctions haven’t worked. North Korea is testing missiles at a furious rate, and the nuclear weapons program grinds forward. 2) China either can’t or won’t control them; (presumably, it’s a little of both.) Beyond that, China really doesn’t want a unified Korea. So, why would Beijing do something that trends in that direction? China wants the Kim regime in power, but hopes to keep them on some sort of leash, even a long and badly frayed leash.
Meanwhile, Kim has conducted multiple nuclear tests, and there are indications (publicly available satellite imagery) that he’s preparing another such test.
North Korea has also been engaged in an aggressive missile development and testing program. They may not have an intercontinental missile – yet (the missile and warhead need further testing), but they have operational missiles that can strike South Korea, Japan, and Guam. Public estimates are that they either have or will have within the next year or so a handful of nuclear weapons that will fit on these missiles.
Which leaves the current administration where?
First, several initiatives are moving forward. While there are a host of sanctions against North Korea already, they’re not necessarily well enforced. The US can insist that others, allies and trading partners, not only refuse to deal with North Korea, but also seize any ships that attempt to trade in certain goods. The US can use its political and economic “weight” to insist countries strictly honor the sanctions.
However, the North is very good at working through loopholes, small and large. Sanctions are important, but sanctions alone are not going to stop the North.
US military posture in Korea, and in the Western Pacific (especially Japan) has been strengthened under the Trump administration, particularly in our missile defense posture, with the deployment of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-ballistic missile system.
The US has repeatedly made it clear that we will not tolerate an attack on the South and statements from the new administration (including from the President), as well as Secretary of Defense Mattis’s visit to Korea and Japan, help convey that message.
Against the backdrop of a corruption scandal in Seoul and the impeachment of President Park, the real question is: how to separate Kim from power without a war or a paroxysm of destruction?
Strengthen the alliance, buttress sanctions, work with the new president, hold fast against North Korea’s demands; all that sort of thing is appropriate.
But in the end, Kim needs to go.
We must work with the ROK, we need to penetrate the north, irrespective of risk, make contact with possible replacements, destroy the Kim regime internally, and move northern Korea out of the 19th century and into the 21st. It will be painful and there will be setbacks. But, there are really no other acceptable options.
Copyright 2017 Arrias