North Korea: What’s the US to do?
Since, I’m a student at one of the flagship international relations schools, I feel like I should do some real IR blogging on this site (similar to the kind that happens here). So, today when news passed that North Korea has named Kim Jong-un as their next leader, I felt like it was a good idea to start with my IR blogging on the DPRK. After all, there is so much to say about this country.
To recap, within the last two-weeks, the DPRK has detonated a nuclear weapon, ended a 56-year long truce with South Korea, began preparations to test an inter-continental ballistic missile (that would put Alaska and Hawaii within range), and announced their new leader will be the son of Kim Jong-il, a 26 year old spawn who was chosen because of his many “similarities” to his predecessor and father.
What, if anything, should we be worried about this? First, I think the possibility of nuclear attack from Pyongyang against the US is minimal for several reasons. First, The DPRK can’t fit a warhead on any of their missiles to send them across the Pacific. Second, the likelihood that a ballistic missile shot from the northeastern part of the Korean peninsula reaching the northwestern part of the US before it was intercepted by an anti-ballistic missile system is doubtful. This is simply because our ABM systems can intercept a ballistic missile at three stages during its trajectory from this distance (the initial ascent phase; the free-flight/mid-course phase or apogee; and the re-entry phase), giving us ample time and opportunity to strike down an offensive. The last reason why I don’t think the DPRK would try to attack the US is because it wouldn’t serve any strategic purpose, if only to draw the US into a war that wouldn’t make much sense from anyone’s standpoint.
But, a strike against the US is not the most worrisome scenario posed by a nuclear DPRK. North Korea has deep hostilities with regional neighbors such as Japan and South Korea. Recently, after Seoul joined the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) in an effort to curb the flow of nuclear materials and missile systems being proliferated by and to Pyongyang, a DPRK military official revealed through threat that the move could provoke war. Yet, Seoul only agreed to join the PSI after Pyongyang conducted its second nuclear test.
The PSI represents an opportunity to reign in the DPRK; if it includes China’s support. Up until now China has declined to support the initiative because it questions whether the treaty interferes with sovereignty and violates international law. But, China’s wavering on the PSI is less of an indication on how it feels about the DPRK. Even Bejing recently lashed out against Pyongyang for its actions. And considering that North Korea is the closest to China of any other country in the world, this must have got their attention.
Gaining China’s acceptance of the PSI wouldn’t stop Pyongyang’s actions, because the DPRK already has the nuclear capabilities it needs, but it would be a clear signal to Pyongyang’s leadership that the region is wholeheartedly against its recent actions. China’s support for the PSI, backing of international sanctions, and restrictions on leadership in North Korea could offer the greatest potential for a diplomatic breakthrough. In fact, what might be the best strategy to obtaining a compliant DPRK is to focus on where it hurts them the most, their leadership.
Continuing with my point, the US shouldn’t back away from its support for South Korea, the six-party talks, and the PSI. But, what may prove more fruitful is if the US can concede some control to China, while maintaining its core objectives in regional negotiations. Hedging that China wants to maintain a stable region and is less susceptible to supporting communist governments (just because they’re communists), the US could reasonably predict that China would at some point increase its pressure on Pyongyang. While this might not work completely, it would at least be a change from our strategies over the past few years, which have basically rewarded Pyongyang for bad behavior. Kind of like providing carrots to the donkey who is immune to the stick. With this new approach, we wouldn’t supply any carrots nor furnish any sticks.
The DPRK has typically gained two benefits from its actions: 1) diplomatic favors/plea bargains and 2) regional legitimacy. Not to mention the economic benefits it receives from selling nuclear materials to places like Syria and Iran. The US cannot prevent the DPRK from receiving these benefits on its own. In actuality, the US is very limited for several reasons (partly because of a poor economic situation at home and an over burdened military abroad). Thus, by conceding more responsibility to regional players, the US could benefit by decreasing its obligations while supporting a more legitimate regionally-focused bargain. The only stipulation must be that deals brokered by China, Russia, and other nations less concerned with the DPRK threat, would have to be more along the lines of punishment or coercement, and not continued rewards and inducements that seek to spoil the DPRK into behaving better.