How America’s approach to the North Korea conflict is broken, and what’s been missing
US administrations have consistently failed in containing the threat posed by North Korea — a stronger approach is necessary.
Background on the DPRK
With President Trump’s recent nearly catastrophic tweet about the removal of U.S. troops in South Korea, questions regarding North Korea’s threat to the world continue to circulate across the globe. In the recent past, United States presidential administrations have repeatedly failed to manage the country’s development of weapons of mass destruction. While the Trump administration claims to have made progress in catalyzing the denuclearization of the secretive dictatorship, it is not unlike previous presidencies on this front.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has, for decades, demonstrated activity in accumulating missile technology and developing increasingly sophisticated weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In January of 2003, the DPRK formally withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and has not ratified the Rome Statute — thereby refusing to surrender its international legal sovereignty to the UN-administered International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
Although numerous members of the international community have imposed heavy economic sanctions on the DPRK, the country continually reinforces its offensive weapons and technologies programs.
The DPRK claimed this aggression would cease following Kim Jong-Un’s summit with President Donald Trump on June 12, 2018 in Singapore. During the historic meeting, the DPRK stated that it would “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Pyongyang has yet failed to provide evidence for these claims, and North Korea’s threat cannot now be nullified in the minds of U.S. officials or civilians. As such, strategies for removing the Kim regime from power are becoming increasingly required for stability.
Strategies and Factors
As world governments remain stagnant, stronger foreign policy — reminiscent of regime change — must re-enter the global scene and further action must be taken by the United States.
Under the Clinton, W. Bush, and Obama administrations, appeasement (sending humanitarian aid in exchange for promises of denuclearization) of the DPRK has been the most popular approach; however, the DPRK has consistently failed to see these agreements through.
The vast array of resources and power at its disposal gives the U.S. access to numerous militaristic and operative approaches to eliminate the North Korean threat; however, there are plenty more factors preventing action in North Korea than there are allowing it.
The reason the U.S. cannot simply pursue a full-scale attack is two-fold: one factor being the allies and powers in North Korea’s vicinity, and the second being Kim’s potential to retaliate vigorously.
North Korea is surrounded by two nations pivotal to the conflict: China and South Korea. While China highly prioritizes trade with North Korea and stability in the DPRK, South Korea, by contrast, serves as a strong ally to the United States. The fallout of any suddenly violent combat in the peninsula would likely spill over into both nations, spawning human rights crises due to nuclear or toxic pollutants, refugees, and more.
One possible method to remove Kim is assassination. While this ideally prevents the deaths or mass exodus of Korean citizens, the apparent simplicity of this plan belies its true complications. For one, state-sponsored assassination of a head of state defines an act of war. Further, travel restrictions prevent virtually any individual from entering the country. Even taking for granted an assassin’s entry, locating Kim greatly overshadows the difficulty of any previous task in the process.
Even if Kim were assassinated, the power vacuum left in his wake would summon much greater troubles. Soon after George W. Bush left office, President Obama — following Bush’s initial Status of Forces Plan in Iraq and the ambition of subduing Libya’s Gaddafi — removed almost all ground troops from Iraq. In so doing, the U.S. left behind a power vacuum: people in the war-torn nation were left to their own devices; power hungry caliphates like ISIS — even more extreme than previous despots — moved to seize control and fill the void. Hence, a Middle East plagued by terror and religious strife of an even more extreme degree was created.
A promising strategy requiring more measures and nuance is a U.S.-sponsored invasion. Fourteen years ago, America leveraged military resources to depose the leader of Iraq — a feat which was successful partially by 2003 when Hussein was captured, and in 2006 when he was executed by the Iraqi Special Tribunal.
A regime change plan contingent on the nature of human beings to seek freedom and launch rebellions presents hope for unseating Kim Jong-Un. North Koreans have heard rumors of freer lives below the 38th Parallel of the DMZ from radio broadcasts and have escaped across the Chinese border, bringing back stories of a lifestyle in which there is more opportunity, choice, and freedom.
History is replete with the pattern of revolutions being born of dejected peoples: King Louis XVI saw his empire fall by the hands of his French proletariat; Muammar Gaddafi was murdered by Libyan rebels; even Saddam Hussein’s once subjects cheered in the streets for days following his capture. Decades ago, regimes like Stalin’s in Russia, Pol Pot’s in Cambodia, and Mao’s in China made every attempt to shield their subjects from the world — but the North Koreans are an increasingly awakening people.
Trying to forcefully deter nuclear ambitions in Pyongyang where patience instead will bring change is as foolish as it is lethal, especially considering how other changes within North Korea are much more likely than complete denuclearization. The U.S. should focus on allowing for the possibility of change rather than trying to force Pyongyang out of the status quo via policies of appeasement.
The people of the DPRK are developing ideas of insurrection and the potential to execute such actions; however, U.S. forces must be poised to foster the conditions necessary for this kind of natural transition to occur.
The U.S. must very carefully accumulate troops and military resources in South Korea and Japan to build up a security force much greater than that which already occupies the Sea of Japan and the South China Sea in allied outposts surrounding the Hermit State.
When the first stages of rebellion are upon Kim Jong-Un, the U.S. should deploy the forces gradually amassed in neighboring territories — preferably armed with sufficient intel as well — locate and seize their nuclear weapons as quickly as (and if) possible, help train insurgents to unseat their leader, and create border guards to mitigate a refugee crisis. If this succeeds, we will allow Kim’s fate to be decided and move on to the next, most challenging piece.
If the Kim dynasty is removed successfully, the U.S. is far from done — if history is any indicator. After the rapid fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, sectarian violence prevailed in Iraq as U.S. forces loosened their presence in the country. If the U.S. were to let go of its roles in maintaining security in a nascent post-revolutionary democracy, refugee crises could engulf China and South Korea, and, left unchecked, it’s likely that another North Korean would, after skirmishes and civil conflicts, simply claim power once more and rule in the same fashion — possibly even worse — as did the Kim regime. In this scenario, we will have achieved nothing. The U.S. should work with the South Korean government to install regional security forces to help maintain the stability of a unified peninsula and promote a democratic transition.
While immediate unification of the Koreas following a sudden intervention or paradigm shift would cost trillions of dollars, the gradual convergence of North and South Korea’s financial assets is the most economically feasible approach. North Korea has a GDP less than 1% of the South; hence, resources for humanitarian aid would need to come slowly from nations like the U.S. and South Korea. The South would foster the slow acclimation of North Koreans into society via paths such as the separation of special districts. Like defectors of the DPRK, these groups would then be introduced to the new society after which their lives will be defined by their place in democracy.
The international community has, in the past, been disjointed on interventionist resolutions to foreign crises. Still, the fact that North Korea threatens lives beyond the Far East and the U.S. cannot be disputed. If we allow the world’s skepticisms to hinder our initiatives towards global progress, then apathy will mark a new failure for the world. This plan idealistically relies on the continuity of human nature and boasts plenty of risk. Lives can be lost and populations threatened, but these are the sacrifices necessary to build a better and safer world.
Octavio Vega is a member of the MIT Class of 2022 studying Systems Neuroscience, as well as Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He is also a chair for the MIT Model United Nations.