The North Korean Tertium Non Datur

At the Wall Street Journal William Galston expresses the different views of North Korean motives pretty succinctly:

The success of nuclear diplomacy with North Korea depends on Pyongyang’s true motives for acquiring nuclear weapons, an issue about which the U.S. and China have long disagreed. Chinese experts and officials assert that the North has acquired a nuclear arsenal because the regime perceives a genuine threat from the U.S. and South Korea.

In a Brookings strategy paper, Fu Ying —chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress of China and a former lead participant in the multilateral talks about North Korea’s nuclear program—urges Americans to understand the profound sense of insecurity that pervaded the North Korean leadership after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was for decades the regime’s principal supporter. Beijing’s move to establish full diplomatic relations with Seoul in 1992 intensified Pyongyang’s sense of isolation and probably strengthened its determination to depend on nuclear weapons rather than allies for security.

The view from Washington is very different. Most U.S. experts in and out of government believe North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons reflects aggressive intentions—to push U.S. forces out of South Korea and reunify the peninsula on Pyongyang’s terms. North Korea’s ostensible security concerns, they say, stem from irrational paranoia about U.S. intentions that no concessions could allay. And North Korea’s history of reneging and cheating on interim agreements underscores the difficulty—if not outright futility—of returning once more to diplomacy. If the U.S. interpretation is correct, the only choices are deterrence, which implies acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear-armed state, or a disastrous war.

Unlike those, presumably including Mr. Galston, who hold the view that he attributes to the Chinese, I take the North Koreans at their word. “They can’t possibly mean it” is not a sound argument. However, there’s still a course of action other than deterrence or war. We could just tell the Chinese clearly and simply what the consequences of North Korean aggression would be: we would destroy the Kim regime and probably most of North Korea utterly and the Korean peninsula would be reunited under South Korea as an ally of the United States. If they’re content with that, just let the North Koreans keep doing what they’ve been doing. If they don’t like it, stop the North Koreans themselves.

That isn’t deterrence as the term is usually used, either aimed at North Korea or China. It’s merely a statement of the costs.

4 comments… add one
  • Guarneri

    Presumably we have told the Chinese just that. It certainly has been the public position of a certain D Trump. The Chinese appear to have taken it to heart, with fingers firmly crossed behind their back, and promptly shipped oil and who knows what else to NK.

    So what now.

  • Andy

    “Unlike those, presumably including Mr. Galston, who hold the view that he attributes to the Chinese, I take the North Koreans at their word. “They can’t possibly mean it” is not a sound argument.”

    Ok, a few quick points:

    Military reunification has not been officially stated North Korean policy since the early 1990’s. That said, North Korea probably hasn’t given up totally on the idea but the problem for them is they lack the capability to conquer the South and this is unlikely to change anytime soon. Nuclear weapons are not useful for an offensive military campaign designed to conquer territory and it’s obvious that the DPRK is using them or strategic and not tactical purposes.

    Additionally, since in inception, North Korea believes that the ultimate problem on the peninsula was the interference of outside powers. That’s why the North is so focused on the US and why one of its long-standing goals is the removal of US forces and influence completely from the South. According to North Korean doctrine and official state policy implemented in the early 1990’s, this is a prerequisite to any unification effort. Prior to that, when the balance of power was more in the North’s favor, military action to both remove the “colonials” and unite the peninsula was a state policy option. It’s not today, nor has it been for a couple of decades. So the word you are taking them out is outdated.

    Third, North Korea has been pretty consistent that their development of nuclear weapons is a response to perceived US aggression and they’ve consistently maintained the position that the US will seek to crush and overthrow the regime much as we did in other countries like Iraq and Libya. This position has been reiterated by the North officially and unofficially – pretty much anytime they are given the chance. Considering that North Korea is actually militarily weak relative to the US and the South, and is growing continually and considerably weaker over time, with no prospect for improvement thanks to the countries isolation, a defensive posture and use of nukes as a strategic deterrent actually makes sense. If you’re going to take North Korea at its word, it’s not something that should be ignored.

    However, as indicated, there is a lot more to look at than what North Korea says. Their actions and resource allocations speak much louder than any propaganda. And those areas clearly point to a more defensive strategy. Or said another way, if their actual goal is to conquer the South then underinvesting in their conventional forces and pursuing nuclear weapons is a really, really dumb way to go about it.

    All these “experts” in Washington who continue to believe that a strategic nuclear capability reflects aggressive intentions have yet to formulate a coherent explanation for how or why. They’ve put the cart before the horse and assumed aggressive intentions and then attempted fit strategic nuclear weapons into their analysis. But there is no coherent explanation for nuclear weapons being part of an aggressive military strategy to take the South, so the only explanations these experts can come up with is that North Korea is “krazy” or they are attempting nuclear blackmail. The former is disproven by longstanding reality and the latter is just plain dumb.

  • Andy, those “experts” can’t admit that the NorKs may have a defensive orientation due to US actions, b/c then they would have to reexamine what they’ve done over the last few decades and admit that they have at least contributed to this (and many other) bad situations. We could all be glowing in the dark and they will admit no fault.

  • Bob Sykes

    First, with regard to a renewed Korean War, China will not tolerate an American ally on its border, and like the first time will fight all out to prevent it. China+Russia+North Korea would defeat US+South Korea. Japan would sit it out unless they were first attacked. Russia +China+North Korea have conventional military superiority in the theater. America’s forces are too thin on the ground, and it would take months to build up sufficient forces. Viz Persian Gulf I aand II.

    The result of war is unification of the Peninsula under the Kim regime. The fact that our leaders are so deluded as to think that China and Russia would sit by while we incorporated North Korea into our empire is the greatest threat to peace on the Peninsula. We, not Kim, are the aggressors.

    Second, as to the reality of Kim’s fear of an American attack: Serbia, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan (thrice), Ukraine, Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Philippines…plus threats against Iran and Russia.

    The US’ record of wanton aggression against regimes it doesn’t like is truly appaling and reason enough for any country to have a nuclear deterrent. Even, as the coup in Turkey shows, countries that are our allies.

    The reality is that the US is an aggressive, expansionist empireal state and a rogue terrorist state. The international community has to find some way to rein in the US.

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