“When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.” — Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone
North Korea is a threat, and has been for some time. The nuclear and missile threats are quite clear now. We have answers to the direct threat to the United States. There is another threat—North Korea can damage or break our alliances. Our allies have been within range of North Korean conventional weapons since 1950. The fast-approaching weapon-of-mass-destruction threat, chemical, and perhaps biological as well as nuclear, is truly existential to Japan and the Republic of Korea. We need a different approach. We need to worry less about what North Korea wants or what coercion might work. We have not found those answers despite searching for nearly three decades. We need to focus on how to emerge from this crisis with our deterrence strengthened, our alliances reinforced, and our regional presence and prestige enhanced. Negotiations and sanctions can proceed as always, despite their “Lucy and the football” image, but they must be built on undoubted strength and power.
North Korea is not only the “Land of Lousy Options” as characterized by Victor Cha of CSIS, it is also the land of wrong assumptions, at least by the United States. We think of it as a “failed state” certain to collapse. In the meantime, paraphrasing Dylan, they seem to have nothing to lose, confounding the usual workings of diplomacy. When the USSR collapsed, taking with it North Korea’s major support, we thought North Korea would not survive. Closely related, when Kim Il-sung died it was assumed that his son Kim Jong-il would not be his equal. Kim Jong-un was thought similarly unworthy. North Korea consistently confounds our estimates of its military capability and resiliency.
Since the end of the Cold War and its bipolar discipline, we have met each North Korean crisis with proposals of military action, negotiations leading to grand agreements, and sanctions, in turn or together. Preemptive military action brings risk to our closest allies. Agreements lead to blatant cheating, and sanctions always fail. We hope that at some point North Korea will act like a normal—if autocratic—government amenable to a mix of coercion and incentives. They don’t. It’s past time to examine our assumptions and our responses.
The Kim family dynasty rules as a worldwide criminal cartel, not as a conventional government with some residual regard for its citizens. And dynasty business is good. No diplomatic reception is more lavish than those in Pyongyang, as sumptuous dinners, endless drinks, and large choirs entertain the elite and their visitors while most of the population is under stress. The leadership rides in expensive cars and enjoys the finest in luxuries. The country imports massive quantities of high-tech mining equipment to support and conceal military capability as well as mineral extraction. Missile and nuclear weapons development programs continue to move forward despite the efforts of international organizations and other nations. Despite its pride as a Marxist state it has showed no ideological qualms about taking advantage of A.Q. Khan’s entrepreneurial nuclear proliferation business. North Korean workers able to work abroad send their remittances home to the government, not their families. Front companies operate in many countries, some clandestinely, some as open secrets. High-quality counterfeit notes, renminbi and others as well as dollars, flow from the Hermit Kingdom. Narcotics, particularly methamphetamines, enhance the treasury balance sheet. Most important, nuclear, chemical and biological weapons technology and capabilities are for sale.
North Korea’s situation bears comparison to that of an armed element holding hostages behind strong barricades. The hostages in this case are North Korea’s helpless population, the Republic of Korea, Japan and even China. Geography provides the barricade; the weapons provide the threat.
North Korea’s terrain is daunting, with mountainous barriers inhibiting military movement and providing virtually unlimited natural fortification material for weapons and for defense industrial efforts—nuclear reprocessing facilities included. Far from collapse after the fall of the Soviet Union, North Korea exploited their geography and military power to build means of powerful intimidation and coercion. As their ability to launch another ground attack on South Korea receded they opted for a massive artillery and rocket presence in the Kaesong Mountains to threaten South Korea’s capital. Seoul literally emerged from rubble in 1953 to become the mega-city of today. Its vulnerability is clear.
The emergence of missile threats and the nuclear program threaten Japan. On August 31, 1998, North Korea launched, while in negotiations with U.S. officials in New York, a three-stage rocket over Honshu without warning. The number of stages is significant, as the United States had repeatedly assured Japan that North Korea did not have that capability. This was widely assumed to be a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, despite claims of launching a satellite. The blow to Japanese confidence was palpable. North Korea kidnapped Japanese citizens, and it’s widely assumed that illicit gambling profits are remitted to North Korea.
North Korea can manipulate China, but in vastly different ways. The first is a fear of the consequences of a collapse of North Korea’s government. China does not want a unified Korea, presumably friendly with the United States or even neutral, on its border. Potentially large numbers of North Korean refugees are not welcome. China recognizes that truly effective sanctions would result in a greatly diminished lifestyle for the ruling class as well as catastrophe for the helpless population. Regime change could follow a failure of the system of sharing spoils and privilege. That is not an acceptable risk. As a result, China will only apply limited pressure to North Korea.
Given the repeated failure of our three traditional responses—military preemption, negotiations over agreements, and enforcement of sanctions—we must shift focus to our allies and friends. They are the most important element now. We must act to reinforce the credibility of our deterrence, a deterrence that has been under assault since the early 1990s. Our assurances that agreements and sanctions will work have been exposed. The very existence and success of North Korea’s missile and WMD programs—recall the successful deployment and employment of VX nerve gas in Malaysia—is eloquent testimony to sanctions and agreement failures. We need a different approach.
Credible deterrence is built upon an undoubted ability to prevail in the event of conflict. This is not seeking conflict, any more than establishing effective law enforcement or fire prevention is encouragement of crime or fire. This undoubted ability to prevail ensures that we, in cooperation with our allies and friends, can protect the territory, the interests and the lives of our allies and friends. This ensures that allies and friends can resist coercion.
Ensuring that our ability to prevail in the event of conflict is credible with our allies requires the prompt and sustained deployment of all capabilities necessary to an undoubted ability to prevail. All options must be on the table, as we have stated. If our allies would be reassured by the redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons to the peninsula, we should do that. This is far more a matter of persuasion and credibility than a strict military necessity, of course, because persuasion and perception are critically important.
Just as China objects vigorously to the deployment of the Theater High Altitude Area Defense System to South Korea, they will object vigorously to any additional U.S. capability deployed to the region. They must be told that this is not about them. If they cannot or will not help to restrain North Korea, we have no choice but to reinforce the capability and capacity of our alliances. This reinforcement must be done with urgency, to show we have the strength of our convictions. China must be told that this is nothing personal, just business. Reinforcing our regional presence, prestige and capabilities, and enhancing the strength of our alliances, supports our vital, even survival, interests. It’s not negotiable.
Last, elevate our rhetoric to that of a great nation. Avoid threats, direct and indirect. Speak with actions—the “Big “Stick”—of increasing hard power and appeal to the better angels of our friends and allies. We are still the nation that faced down the massively armed Soviet Union over the course of the Cold War and its many hot campaigns on the periphery of Eurasia. In addition to enhancing our regional power, we must regain our strength. We must recall and re-engage our efforts on behalf of universal values. We must find our voice again as the champion of peace, security, and most important freedom, in its largest sense. We must remember and act on what we stand “for” and not merely protest what we oppose. President Reagan, who had no small bit to do with the successful resolution of the Cold War, said it best: “Our creed as Americans is that these rights—these human rights—are the property of every man, woman, and child on this planet and that a violation of human rights anywhere is the business of free people everywhere.”
Wallace C. Gregson is a retired Marine, former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs 2009–11, currently senior advisor at Avascent International and senior director for China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest.