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How to Take Down North Korea, Without Waging War

The options for dealing with North Korea from President Obama and the Washington foreign policy establishment have ranged from mediocre to bad. Securing a region vital to the United States, and protecting the freedom won at the cost of tends of thousands of American lives, can only be achieved in the long run by ending the North Korean regime. This can be done peacefully, but only if Washington gets its head in the game with better policies and tools to help the North Korean people liberate themselves.

As with every other crisis in the two-year tenure of our president, the November 23rd North Korean assault on South Korea was met with a dithering response from a commander-in-chief who appears to be in command of little. President Obama refused to deviate from a schedule that took him to Indiana to tout his auto-industry bailout and later had him sit with Mrs. Obama for an interview by Barbara Walters. But Mr. Obama finally did weigh in by stating that “We strongly affirm our commitment to defend South Korea.”

Our democratic allies in the Pacific can be forgiven for doubting this resolve, given that the White House has focused more effort recently on passing the START treaty, which could eviscerate our missile defense and further impair our strategic deterrence, than addressing the threat at hand, with its broadening nuclear ambitions and brazen aggression. Reality is calling, but Mr. Obama refuses to answer, entranced still by his naive nuclear-free-world utopianism and instinctive liberal distrust of America standing up for itself and its allies.

The Obama administration has reported that the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and her battle group will proceed to the Yellow Sea west of Korea as a show of force. But this was an exercise planned before the recent North Korean attack and revelation of a new uranium-based nuclear weapons line. As such, it will be seen at best as a modest gesture. A similar show after North Korea sank an allied naval vessel in March had little effect on the regime.

Mr. Obama’s Defense Secretary demonstrated no more resolve. After the attack, he offered little more than a compliment of his South Korean counterpart’s “restraint shown to date.” This translates roughly to “Thank you for resisting the urge to defend your nation.” (South Korean President Lee has since sacked the defense minister.)

A better assessment and prescription was offered on Fox News this week by former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton. On Thursday, he remarked: “The only way we’re ever really going to deal with that threat is to eliminate the regime in North Korea and reunite the Korean peninsula… I would engage in subversive activities inside North Korea. I think that regime is weak, the people are destitute and I think that when the succession crisis comes, when Kim Jong Il finally passes from the scene—which could be sooner rather than later—while a lot of risks are entailed by that, there are a lot of opportunities as well.”

Bolton is right. We ought to work to end the regime. This is important not just for the safety of South Korea, but for direct U.S. security and national interests as well. 

Security in the Pacific was won at a cost of 37,000 American lives in the Korean War, more than 106,000 American lives in the Asia campaign of World War II and the steady vigil of millions of Americans in uniform ever since. America did all this not only because of our principles, but out of pragmatic necessity. Each year, Asia and the Pacific grow more vital to the U.S. economy and the health of democracies there is critical to help check communist-run China.

North Korea threatens all of this. It also has a long history of proliferating weapons to loathsome regimes, and could one day arm Islamist terrorists with nuclear material for the right price.

To help the North Korean people end the regime, the U.S. and its democratic allies should consider the following:

1. Dramatically increasing defector-led radio broadcasting from outside North Korea. The truth is Kim Jong Il’s greatest foe, and dissent movements thrive on factual information that undermine the dictators’ propaganda. Defector broadcasts exist but need real resources.

2. Halt all foreign aid and other funds flows to North Korea, which the regime uses to survive. We should also deny any financial organization or central bank that deals with North Korea the ability to clear transactions in U.S. dollars—essentially a death penalty for banks that would end the regime’s ability to move funds and reward those who keep it in power.

3. Stop trade and seaborne proliferation. China has demonstrated it will not cooperate with us or comply with U.N. resolutions that restrict trade or call for inspections of goods going to North Korea. However, ships going to or from North Korea can be impounded.

4. Wage economic warfare. The North Korean government is the first regime since the Third Reich to counterfeit U.S. currency. We should return the favor by dumping bales of North Korea currency just off Korean and Chinese shores. The resulting economic tailspin would penalize the North Korean elite most.

5. Allied militaries should broadcast a clear message to North Korea’s military seeking to separate it from the Kim family. The USS Pueblo, which North Korea hijacked in 1968 and currently holds captive, should be sunk. We have every right to do this to our own property, and every military officer in North Korea would perceive the regime is running out of lives.

6. Change the military balance. We should consult with South Korea and Japan about increasing the forces of our three nations available for a rapid move on Pyongyang should one ever become necessary. 

More importantly, we should talk openly about placing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in the 5-150 kiloton range in the region to counter the growing nuclear threat from North Korea. For the first time, this would make China realize supporting North Korea is harming Beijing’s own security, which just might make it less willing to aid Pyongyang. Kim’s generals would also see they are worse off for following him.

Ending the current North Korean regime peacefully is harder than it sounds—but far from impossible. Unfortunately, as with so much of our engorged federal government, the instrumentalities that should be working on this are broken. Notwithstanding vapid talk of “soft power” and “smart power,” the Washington foreign policy establishment has left America with almost no ability to influence political outcomes in hostile states like North Korea. In short, our ability to wage political warfare or subversion against our enemies is highly limited.

The CIA exited this business long ago, having set in motion some spectacular successes and failures early in its existence. The State Department, which has a democracy and human rights bureau, has always been more comfortable talking to dictatorships than the dissidents and refugees who can challenge those regimes.

The U.S. has the National Endowment for Democracy, funded at some $118 million last year by the government. But the Endowment, still operating under the leadership it had at its inception in the mid-1980s, has become tame, while exhibiting incongruent traits of arrogance and ineffectiveness that seem to pervade everything in Mr. Obama’s Washington. It is strikingly irrelevant to today’s top priorities.

Despite all of these broken tools, the U.S. could still fashion a program to help the North Koreans liberate themselves if we so desired. If the president could just take one day to momentarily channel his predecessors and Democratic hawks Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman or John F. Kennedy, he could perhaps task one or two dozen of his 2.15 million employees to could coordinate an effort like this. It would not be easy or quick, but facilitating self-liberation by the North Korean people is preferable to all alternatives—and the only promising non-violent path to security on the Korean Peninsula.

Christian Whiton is a former U.S. State Department senior adviser and is a principal at D.C International Advisory. He is a frequent contributor to Fox News Opinion.

Christian Whiton is the president of the Hamilton Foundation.  He was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration and a policy advisor on the Giuliani and Gingrich presidential campaigns. He is author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War” (Potomac Books 2013).