Dealing with North Korea: Deterrence and Diplomacy

While almost all of the communist world has gone into the dustbin of history, the North Korean regime has done a truly remarkable job of sustaining itself-at an enormous cost to its own people and at continuing risk to regional security.

While almost all of the communist world has gone into the dustbin of history, the North Korean regime has done a truly remarkable job of sustaining itself-at an enormous cost to its own people and at continuing risk to regional security. How do we account for the stability of this Stalinist regime and the half-century of confrontation across the DMZ? Three reasons stand out: first, the durability of the U.S.-South Korean alliance; second, the support the North Koreans have received for decades from Russia, China, and from Korean expatriates in Japan; third, the fierce determination of the Kim family dynasty to sustain itself by virtually any means, including the export of narcotics, counterfeit currency and weapons-all the things that make this regime so threatening to the region, to the security of our South Korean ally, and indeed to our own interests.

That said, the half-century of status quo on the Korean Peninsula is quickly coming to an end. Significant change is coming to Korea, and the main uncertainty remaining is whether it will be in the direction of peace or war. Several factors point to the risks of war.

To begin, the Washington-Seoul alliance has become seriously strained. Significant differences in perspective have arisen over how to deal with Pyongyang. We feel a threat from the North's nuclear program more intensely than do the South Koreans. Our views on how to transform the North differ strongly. Southerners hope that an accommodating approach to the Pyongyang regime will encourage reform. Most American Korea specialists, however, are skeptical that this highly militarized family dynasty will willingly change its ways.

Secondly, there are the potential consequences of North Korea's loss of patrons and allies. China, Russia, and Japan have all reevaluated their relationship with Pyongyang. Ironically, North Korea's loss of its traditional allies, and the weakening of the sense of threat from Pyongyang, is one reason the South has felt less risk, if not opportunity, to pursue its "sunshine" policy and to give economic support to Pyongyang. At present, however, given the North's nuclear program, it is not clear whether the South will continue to subsidize the Pyongyang regime, further clouding an already bleak future for the North.

North Korea's economic crisis is now close to a decade old. Studies we have done at the United States Institute of Peace suggest that up to 15 percent of North Korea's population has died since the great famine of the mid-1990s, either through starvation or the effects of malnutrition.

Given that the situation now confronting this gangster regime is so unsustainable, we have an opportunity to formulate a policy that will result in a political transformation along the lines of what happened in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, and not in a military conflict.

The factors for constructing a policy for change are complex, and much of this has to do with the consequences of the fantasy world of proclaimed "self-reliance" (juche) and rule by a "Dear Leader" in which Pyongyang lives and operates.

North Korea is a complete economic and social failure. Yet over the past fifty years, the North has produced a remarkable record of developing a threat-and-extortion pattern of dealing with the outside world. Today, the reality of the North's militarized approach to rule is that their conventional and now nuclear weapons systems (soon to be operational, if not already so) puts an entire region under threat of artillery and missile attack, and eventually nuclear attack. Pyongyang is able to deter those who might seek to bring about regime change through the use of force.

As worrisome as the North Korean nuclear threat may be, I believe we are capable of deterring it. Most worrisome is the credible possibility that the North will export its nuclear material or weapons capacity. Its clients would likely include rogue regimes hostile to the United States and, worse yet, terrorist groups that are notoriously difficult to monitor and deter. In my view, the North selling nuclear materials or weapons would be a cause for war.

The visible strains now evident in our alliance with the South may have led the North's decision-makers to believe they can weaken our will or capability to deter their military threat. On the other hand, our recent troop movements away from the DMZ may have increased the fear in both Korean capitals that we have provided for ourselves greater flexibility for unilateral action. Perhaps this will increase the deterrent effect of our military presence in the South. Unfortunately, it also seems likely that this has led the North to conclude that it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself all the more.

This brings us to China. For well over a decade, Beijing has been losing patience with Pyongyang. In the late 1980s, China withdrew its economic subsidization of the North. (This, along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, also a long-term subsidizer of Pyongyang, contributed greatly to the North's current economic depression.) The Chinese have stayed their hand in putting real pressure on the North because they fear not just nuclear proliferation on the Peninsula, but also a total economic collapse. This could lead to a very large refugee influx but also, more significantly, a major shift in the regional balance of power. A reconstructed North, a reunified Peninsula, could fall largely outside of Chinese control, and presumably under the influence of the United States.

Within this complex environment, what are the prospects for a peaceful settlement? The key to an effective policy is a strong international coalition to box in and, if necessary, economically suffocate North Korea while at the same time maintaining our military deterrent.