Wishful Thinking

All sorts of people are offering advice on what to do about North Korea. Here’s Henry Kissinger’s, from his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal:

For more than 30 years, the world’s response to North Korea’s nuclear program has combined condemnation with procrastination. Pyongyang’s reckless conduct is deplored. Warnings are issued that its evolution toward weaponization will prove unacceptable. Yet its nuclear program has only accelerated.

The Aug. 5 sanctions resolution passed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council marked a major step forward. Still, an agreed objective remains to be established. But the North Korean success in testing a prototype intercontinental ballistic missile eliminates the scope for further equivocation. If Kim Jong Un maintains a nuclear program against the opposition of China and the U.S. and a unanimous Security Council resolution, it will alter the geostrategic relationship among the principal players. If Pyongyang develops a full-scale nuclear capacity while the world dithers, it will seriously diminish the credibility of the American nuclear umbrella in Asia, especially for our allies in Tokyo and Seoul.

The long-term challenge reaches beyond the threat to American territory to the prospect of nuclear chaos. An operational North Korean ICBM arsenal is still some time away given the need to miniaturize warheads, attach them to missiles, and produce them in numbers. But Asia’s nations are already under threat from North Korea’s existing short- and intermediate-range missiles. As this threat compounds, the incentive for countries like Vietnam, South Korea and Japan to defend themselves with their own nuclear weapons will grow dramatically—an ominous turn for the region and the world. Reversing the progress Pyongyang has already made is as crucial as preventing its further advancement.

American as well as multilateral diplomacy on North Korea has been unsuccessful, owing to an inability to merge the key players’ objectives—especially those of China and the U.S.—into an operational consensus. American demands for an end to the North Korean nuclear program have proved unavailing. U.S. leaders, including in the military, have been reluctant to use force; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has described the prospect of a war over Korea as “catastrophic.” Thousands of artillery tubes entrenched within range of the South Korean capital demonstrate Pyongyang’s strategy of holding hostage greater Seoul’s population of 30 million.

Unilateral pre-emptive military action by the U.S. would involve a risk of conflict with China. Beijing, even if it temporarily acquiesced, would not long abide an American strategy of determining by itself outcomes at the very edge of China’s heartland, as its intervention in the Korean War of the 1950s demonstrated. The use of military force must be carefully analyzed, and its vocabulary must be restrained. But it cannot be precluded.

Considerations such as these have caused the administration’s attempt to enlist China in a diplomatic effort to press Korea toward denuclearization. These efforts so far have had only partial success. China shares the American concern regarding nuclear proliferation; it is in fact the country most immediately affected by it. But while America has been explicit about the goal, it has been less willing to confront its political consequences. Given North Korea’s enormous and disproportionate allocation of national resources to its nuclear-weapons program, abandoning or substantially curtailing it would produce a political upheaval, perhaps even regime change.

China surely understands this. Therefore one of the most conspicuous events of current diplomacy is Beijing’s support in principle of North Korean denuclearization. At the same time, the prospect of disintegration or chaos in North Korea evokes at least two major concerns in China. The first is the political and social effects of a North Korean internal crisis on China itself, re-enacting events familiar from millennia of Chinese history. The second involves security in Northeast Asia. China’s incentive to help implement denuclearization will be to impose comparable restraints on all of Korea. To be sure, South Korea has no visible nuclear program or announced plans for it, but an international proscription is another matter.

China would also have a stake in the political evolution of North Korea following denuclearization, whether it be a two-state solution or unification, and in restrictions on military deployment placed on North Korea. Heretofore, the administration has urged China to press North Korea as a kind of subcontractor to achieve American objectives. The better—probably only feasible—approach is to merge the two efforts and develop a common position jointly pursued with the other countries involved.

Statements defining the U.S. goal as bringing Pyongyang to the conference table reflect the assumption that negotiations are their own objective, operating according to their own momentum, separate from the pressures that brought them about and are needed to sustain them. But American diplomacy will, in the end, be judged by the outcome, not the process. Repeated assurances that the U.S. seeks no unilateral advantage are not sufficient for countries that believe the Asian security structure is at risk.

So which parties should negotiate, and over what? An understanding between Washington and Beijing is the essential prerequisite for the denuclearization of Korea. By an ironic evolution, China at this point may have an even greater interest than the U.S. in forestalling the nuclearization of Asia. Beijing runs the risk of deteriorating relations with America if it gets blamed for insufficient pressure on Pyongyang. Since denuclearization requires sustained cooperation, it cannot be achieved by economic pressure. It requires a corollary U.S.-Chinese understanding on the aftermath, specifically about North Korea’s political evolution and deployment restraints on its territory. Such an understanding should not alter existing alliance relationships.

Paradoxical as it may seem in light of a half-century of history, such an understanding is probably the best way to break the Korean deadlock. A joint statement of objectives and implicit actions would bring home to Pyongyang its isolation and provide a basis for the international guarantee essential to safeguard its outcome.

Seoul and Tokyo must play a key role in this process. No country is more organically involved than South Korea. It must have, by geography and alliance relationship, a crucial voice in the political outcome. It would be the most directly affected by a diplomatic solution and the most menaced by military contingencies. It is one thing for American and other leaders to proclaim that they would not take advantage of North Korea’s denuclearization. Seoul is certain to insist on a more embracing and formal concept.

Similarly, Japan’s history has been linked with Korea’s for millennia. Tokyo’s concept of security will not tolerate indefinitely a nuclear Korea without a nuclear capability of its own. Its evaluation of the American alliance will be importantly influenced by the degree to which the U.S. management of the crisis takes Japanese concerns into account.

The alternative route of a direct U.S. negotiation with Pyongyang tempts some. But it would leave us a partner that can have only a minimum interest in implementation and a maximum interest in playing China and the U.S. off against each other. An understanding with China is needed for maximum pressure and workable guarantees. Instead, Pyongyang could best be represented at a culminating international conference.

There have been suggestions that a freeze of testing could provide an interim solution leading to eventual denuclearization. This would repeat the mistake of the Iranian agreement: seeking to solve a geostrategic problem by constraining the technical side alone. It would provide infinite pretexts for procrastination while “freeze” is defined and inspection mechanisms are developed.

Pyongyang must not be left with the impression that it can trade time for procedure and envelop purpose in tactics as a way to stall and thus fulfill its long-held aspirations. A staged process may be worth considering, but only if it substantially reduces the Korean nuclear capacity and research program in the short term.

A North Korea retaining an interim weapons capability would institutionalize permanent risks:

• that a penurious Pyongyang might sell nuclear technology;

• that American efforts may be perceived as concentrating on protecting its own territory, while leaving the rest of Asia exposed to nuclear blackmail;

• that other countries may pursue nuclear deterrent against Pyongyang, one another or, in time, the U.S.;

• that frustration with the outcome will take the form of mounting conflict with China;

• that proliferation may accelerate in other regions;

• that the American domestic debate may become more divisive.

Substantial progress toward denuclearization—and its attainment in a brief period—is the most prudent course.

Perhaps I’m missing something but I don’t see anything in Dr. Kissinger’s proposal for negotiations or anyone else’s for that matter that North Korea gets that it can’t get by retaining its nuclear weapons. That strikes me as the very definition of “wishful thinking”.

I don’t believe we should engage in preventive war. I don’t think we should hurl idle threats against North Korea. I don’t believe that North Korea can be trusted to honor the terms of any negotiation.

That leaves just two alternatives: accepting a nuclear-armed North Korea as we’ve done for the last ten years as long as they don’t use those weapons or sell them or imposing sanctions on North Korea’s trading partners, mostly China. Take your pick.

5 comments… add one
  • Guarneri

    Dr. Kissinger’s piece is the standard treatment, but I think he glosses over a point: ” A joint statement of objectives and implicit actions would bring home to Pyongyang its isolation and provide a basis for the international guarantee essential to safeguard its outcome.” The NK regime needs, for its survival, the propaganda tool of Dear Leader protecting the NK people against the US, Japan etc. It has no interest in de-isolation or safety guarantees. That’s what makes the issue so difficult.

    I don’t know about others, but I’m not prepared to sacrifice Los Angeles, Denver….or worse. We didn’t in Cuba, we wouldn’t with 3rd tier powers up to now; I don’t see us starting now. It has become cliche in just a few days, but all roads lead through China. Negotiations with NK are just a side show. I don’t believe China cannot exert sufficient influence on NK. All discussions should be about what actions western nations can take vis-a-vis China to motivate them.

  • Andy

    What’s missing from this analysis a thoughtful examination of North Korean motives. The salient question that must be answered before we formulate a strategy is, “Why is the DPRK pursuing this capability?”

    I’ve heard there basic theories to this question:

    1. The regime is crazy with a capital “K” and they want, at the very least, to hold the world hostage or even attack the US directly.

    2. The regime is building this capability to trade it away – it’s a bargaining chip to be used to get concessions in other areas.

    3. The regime believes that nukes are a strategic necessity for its survival.

    There are probably more, but those are the three I hear most often. What does Kissinger think? He doesn’t really say which is telling. This passage jumped out at me however:

    But while America has been explicit about the goal, it has been less willing to confront its political consequences. Given North Korea’s enormous and disproportionate allocation of national resources to its nuclear-weapons program, abandoning or substantially curtailing it would produce a political upheaval, perhaps even regime change.

    So he thinks that successfully curtailing the DPRK’s program would cause lots of problems internally for the regime to include some kind of regime change – a coup or collapse of the government.

    As should be clear from previous comments, I think reason #3 is by far the most likely and it also presents the toughest case for coercive denuclearizing.

  • CuriousOnlooker

    I want to elaborate on my question yesterday. What does Kim think he gets of this – I can understand developing nukes, it’s the ultimate deterrent and guarantees regime survival from foreign powers. What I do not get is developing ICBM capability and threatening the US with it – that ensures a continuing American interest in regime change – which goes against regime survival.

    I can see what Kissinger is saying – the US and China need to successfully cooperate; but it requires both sides to look at a bigger picture beyond their narrow interests. The Chinese are unlikely to allow regime change unless the US accounts for their interests post regime change – the Chinese are too afraid of what happened to Russia post 1989. The Chinese need to see working with the US in fact serves their interests, a successful North Korean blackmail will likely lead to a remilitarized and nuclear Japan that would be a calamity for Chinese security.

    I think the problem is both the US and China do not have anyone interested in the bigger picture that Kissinger is drawing.

    Anyway, the Chinese have laid their line that Kim is on his own if he launches missiles at Guam, Kim promises to do the very thing. We will see how reckless he is soon enough.

  • What I do not get is developing ICBM capability and threatening the US with it – that ensures a continuing American interest in regime change – which goes against regime survival.

    IMO the most likely explanation is that he plans to open up shop. One-stop shopping for anyone with cash and a grudge.

    And North Korea isn’t the only authoritarian regime looking for insurance. Why, just today I heard somebody threatening to use force in Venezuela…

  • steve

    “What I do not get is developing ICBM capability and threatening the US with it ”

    I suspect he is playing to his “base” as it were with his statements. However, since th eUS is the country that has a recent history of invading countries with which it disagrees, wanting nukes with that capability is certainly in line with regime survival.

    Steve

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