There's Only One Way to Stop North Korea's Nuclear Program

Civilians and members of the army attend one of the joint meetings, that were held across South Phyongan, Hwanghae and Hamgyong provinces, to celebrate North Korea's nuclear progress in this photo released by KCNA

America must target Pyongyang's supporters.

Once again, we are presented with another successful North Korean weapons development event in the early hours of last Wednesday. This event showed yet another increase in North Korean missile capability. Some took comfort over the apparent failure of a reentry vehicle, but the demonstrated range capability brings the rest of the planet within range. Given North Korea’s continued advancements in nuclear weapons capabilities, there is little reason to doubt North Korean will, skill and means.

Global reactions include the usual mix of calls for dialogue and negotiated agreements, economic cooperation, UN censure, imposition of sanctions and threats of potential military action. Again. This is the same set of reactions that greeted the exposure of the North Korean nuclear development program in 1993. It is the same general set of reactions used in every subsequent incident since that time.

How is an impoverished state with an autarkic economy, unreliable or nonexistent energy grids beyond the capital, a woeful national GDP, food-production struggles including widespread malnutrition and famine, and unparalleled human rights abuses able to defy all national and international efforts to become, as some now allege, an “existential threat” to the United States? It must be noted here that North Korea has been an “existential threat” to our allies—Japan and the Republic of Korea—for quite some time. They must be wryly amused to see the United States fully alarmed only now.

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Two powerful factors, among innumerable others, underwrite North Korea’s successful weapons programs. They are the nature of the regime, and the power dynamics of East Asia.

The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK)—to use the formal title—is less a country as we understand that term than a family-run criminal enterprise. Their homegrown Juche (self-reliance) replaced Marxism/Leninism, the Workers Party of Korea is their single party and the constitution calls for a “dictatorship of the people’s democracy.” This structure produced the only hereditary leadership transitions in the Communist world not once but twice.

Lacking, by design, the usual attributes of nations engaged and profiting from global commerce, the DPRK maintains a global network to provide resources to the center—the Kim family. Such efforts are both overt and covert. The overt include overseas workers, embassies, consulates and declared businesses. The covert efforts include businesses with false identities, false-flag shipping and other means.

Resources are generated by overseas worker remittances, cybercrime, counterfeit currency production, narcotics trafficking, weapons sales, nuclear proliferation, sale of chemical weapons, gambling receipts, rhino horn and ivory smuggling, and many other unregulated operations.

Far from being isolated, this is a global effort working alongside—or underneath—legitimate commerce and trade. Indeed, many DPRK efforts have infiltrated legitimate business and clandestinely operate within those structures.

East Asia’s power dynamics provide a warm, if not congenial, environment for North Korea. China can apply pressure on North Korea, but only up to a point. North Korea’s existence is part of Beijing’s heroic narrative of China “standing up” following Mao’s 1949 victory in their civil war, and their emergence from the “Century of Humiliation.” The entry of Chinese forces into North Korea in 1950 is part of the heroic narrative. Mao’s son, Mao Anying, lies buried in North Korea. A statue to the Chinese People’s Volunteers at a martyr’s cemetery commemorates his service. Former premier Wen Jiabo paid his respects here in 2009.