Today the world waits to see whether toughened sanctions, hard nose diplomacy, and even exchanges of nuclear ‘red button’ threats have worked to persuade Kim Jong-Un to give up his nuclear arsenal. At the very least, these Administration initiatives appear to have played a major role in prompting what will be a remarkable summit conference between Kim Jong-Un and President Trump.
Precedent exists. Some countries have given up nuclear weapons development programs voluntarily. South Africa and Brazil did so, but those decisions were prompted more by the establishment of new democracies, not out of fear of imminent attack by a foreign power or diplomatic and sanctions pressure. After the break up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan also gave up their nuclear arsenals, returning them to Russia. (Ukraine may regret that decision today.) Meanwhile, the jury is still out on Iran as the agreement provides for a ten-year freeze, not the permanent elimination of nuclear weapons development. The fact that the United States has just announced that it will be pulling out of the accord adds further uncertainty as to whether Iran will ultimately continue to pursue nuclear weapons or not.
War also remains an option, but one that carries with it devastating consequences, making it uncertain whether any U.S. administration will ever take that route. The historical precedent for war to rid nuclear weapons is limited. In 2002, the United States invaded Sadaam Hussein’s Iraq to rid it of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, but it was eventually discovered that there were none to destroy. One positive by-product, however, of the invasion was that it did cause Libya’s Qaddafi to voluntarily give up his nuclear program out of fear that the United States would next attack him. Any benefits of that precedent were then muddled when the U.S. supported the overthrow of Qaddafi, likely giving other dictators, including Kim Jong-Un, pause on the idea of ever giving up nuclear weapons voluntarily. Two last examples of a military option are Iraq and Syria, whose nascent nuclear facilities were struck in bombing strikes by the Israeli Air Force before either country was far along in a weapons development program.
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All this shows that the historical record for persuading a dictatorship to give up nuclear weapons voluntarily is not promising, barring a change in government or an early military strike before any program is far along. The United States has been imposing sanctions on North Korea for over six decades. While tough diplomacy, sanctions, and an impending summit conference may ultimately succeed, the odds against that also have to be acknowledged as real.
An important question then remains: what can the United States do if Kim Jong-un remains defiant in the face of diplomatic pressure and sanctions, a summit conference fails, and the U.S. must at least weigh other options, other than going to war?
The historical context, going back to the 1953 Korean War armistice, weighs on any consideration of alternative options. At the time of the 1953 Armistice, South Korea was one of the world’s most impoverished countries with $64 per capita income, comparable then to the poorest countries in Africa. Hostilities had destroyed the economy, leaving millions dead, and families traumatized and separated. As ominous, South Korea’s military was utterly incapable of defending the country from another North Korean attack.
The United States had to step forward and provide the military shield to protect South Korea from another invasion. Over the last 68 years, that shield has become permanent with generations of U.S. servicemembers serving in South Korea, backed by a Korean command structure that is firmly institutionalized in U.S. military organization and culture.
During the same swath of time, however, South Korea has achieved an economic miracle, going from one of the poorest to one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Its economy for 2017 was the world’s eleventh largest with a GDP of $1,538,030 trillion, according to the IMF. Meanwhile, if North Korea has gone anywhere, it is backward. The North’s economy is in the dark ages with a GDP colossally smaller than that of South Korea, at best the size of Anchorage, Alaska, approximately $25 billion. Population wise, as well, there is no contest. At 54 million, South Korea is twice as large as North Korea
During the Cold War years, overall U.S. troop strength in South Korea ranged from as high as 75,000 to 44,000. Today, the United States Forces Korea Command, headquartered just below the DMZ in Seoul, continues to remain formidable with over 23,000 military personnel permanently stationed in South Korea, supported by hundreds of aircraft and armor. The Army’s Second Infantry Division maintains an aviation brigade (equipped with AH-64 Apache Longbow helicopters) and an artillery brigade in the South for initial defense against any invasion by the North. After Germany, South Korea is the third largest host of American troops in the world.