North Korea is a “small country, far-away, about which we know little,” to paraphrase a fateful comment in defense of appeasement from the 1938 crisis over Czechoslovakia. But there is one thing every American needs to know about far-away North Korea: its rulers are on a methodical and relentless quest for the capability to hit New York and Washington with nuclear weapons.
The nuclear campaign that North Korea—formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK-- is planning against the United States is one it intends to win.
Washington is badly unprepared to meet this threat, because too many of our leaders do not understand the Pyongyang game-plan.
As bizarre and satire-prone as the North Korean regime’s buffoonish-looking Kim Jong-Un and his servile courtiers may be, Pyongyang’s leadership is neither irrational nor suicidal. The rationale behind this confrontation would actually be to achieve a maximum of strategic gain with a minimum of actual destruction and violence.
The basic idea is to force Washington to blink in an escalating crisis on the Korean peninsula—a crisis of Pyongyang’s own making, at a time and under circumstances of Pyongyang’s own choosing.
If America hesitates or climbs down in the face of a future, stage-managed exercise in tactical North Korean aggression, Pyongyang will have undermined the credibility of the U.S. military alliance with South Korea.
The formal end to that alliance, and the exit of American troops from Korea, could quickly follow.
America’s policy toward the DPRK has been an immense success in preserving a ceasefire in the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953—this is “deterrence.”
But for more than a generation, bipartisan U.S. efforts to keep North Korea from developing nuclear weapons have come to naught. This should not surprise: only the North Korean government can denuclearize—and the existing government has absolutely no interest in making that dream come true.
The Trump Administration needs to do something different.
We need more effective defenses against the DPRK’s means of destruction while simultaneously weakening the regime’s capabilities for both conventional and strategic offense.
This would consist mainly, though not entirely, of military measures. Restoring badly eroded U.S. military capabilities—naval, air, ground forces and an aged strategic arsenal-- is essential.
Likewise more and better missile defense: the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems against ballistic missiles that the U.S. has offered South Korea and Japan is a good step, and so is moving forward in earnest on missile defense for the USA.
As for weakening the DPRK’s military economy, the foundation for all its offensive capabilities: we should put Pyongyang back on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list—it never should have been removed in 2008. Sanctions with genuine bite should be implemented—the dysfunctional DPRK economy is uniquely susceptible to them.
The United Nations has already gotten a comprehensive report on North Korea’s grisly human rights record from its Commission of Inquiry on the situation in the DPRK: let governments of conscience now seek international criminal accountability for North Korea’s leadership.
Then there is the China question. It is by no means impossible for America and her allies to pressure the DPRK if China does not cooperate. That said: it is time for Beijing to pay a penalty for its support for the most odious regime on the planet today.
Many in the West talk of “isolating” North Korea as if this were an objective in its own right. But a serious DPRK threat reduction strategy would not do so. The regime is deathly afraid of what it terms “ideological and cultural poisoning.” We could call that foreign media, international information, cultural exchanges and the like. We should be saying: bring on the “poisoning”!
This brings us to the last agenda item: preparing for a successful reunification in a post-DPRK peninsula. The Kim regime is the North Korean nuclear threat. That threat will not end until the DPRK disappears.
We cannot tell when, or how, this will occur. But it is not too soon to begin the wide-ranging and painstaking international planning and preparations that will facilitate divided Korea’s long-awaited reunion as a single peninsula, free and whole.
Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and is the author of, among other books, "The End of North Korea" AEI Press (October 1, 1999).