North Korea

North Korea and the Godfather Doctrine - survival at any cost

Harry J. Kazianis

My cell phone went off at 4:30am this Independence Day morning —and judging by earlier reports late last night, I had a feeling the news was not going to be good.

“North Korea claims to have successful tested an ICBM, what do you think?” the reporter asked.

Yikes. I love some good old 4th of July fireworks, but this was not what I had in mind.

Those are the words I have hoped never to be woken up to, but such are the facts.

And to be fair, we really shouldn’t be shocked by the news.

Missiles that go thousands of miles that can kill millions of people, while certainly scary, is a technology that is decades old—America has possessed such weapons since the late 1950s. Many nations have such technology with others holding the knowhow to build such missiles if they so desire. For North Korea, if they invested the money and the knowhow it was going to get such a capability sooner rather than later.

While many in the foreign policy and defense community laughed at North Korea’s test failures, clearly the Kim regime was learning from each failed launch, putting together important lessons learned to make tweaks and modifications later.

Now, to be clear, we don’t know for certain if the pariah of Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un, has really tested a weapon that can bring atomic annihilation to the United States—speculation this early is simply that. Early reports do seem to indicate this latest test was certainly a step in the right direction.

At this point, however, we should worry less about the exact date of when North Korea gets an ICBM and worry more about the trend line. And the trend is clear: North Korea has or will soon have the ability to attack not just the U.S., but also most points in Asia and Europe with nuclear weapons.

Events have been building to such an eventuality for a long time now.

Pyongyang, in recent years, has been testing various new classes of missiles and even put a satellite into orbit some years ago, arguably the first sign a nation will soon have a crude ICBM capability. While many in the foreign policy and defense community laughed at North Korea’s test failures, clearly the Kim regime was learning from each failed launch, putting together important lessons learned to make tweaks and modifications later. If the North doesn’t have an ICBM now, we must begin to deal with the notion that it will—and very soon.

So why is Kim building such a weapon, knowing the international community will now most certainly label him public enemy number one? Simple. He knows the world would like nothing more than to see the end of his regime, and nuclear tipped missiles go a long way to guarantee his survival.

In fact, if you want to understand North Korean national security strategy, you don’t need a Ph.D. from Oxford or Yale. In fact, you can be an expert on North Korea in as little as 12 hours.

Just go watch The Godfather trilogy.

We all know the plot line—at least you should—and it seems Kim Jong Un has made it his very own foreign policy doctrine. The Corelones, and specifically Michael Corelone, constantly battled for survival with other mob families. There was no action that was out of bounds. No amount of killing or bloodshed that was out of the question—as long it ensured the family’s survival. Michael Corleone would murder his own brother, his brother-in-law, former allies—anyone who stood in the way of ensuring that he was in power. Sound familiar?

Indeed, Kim has taken the Corelone Doctrine—survival at all costs—to new heights. He has, by some estimates, 200,000 of his own people in what can only be described as concentration camps. Speak out in any way against the regime and you—and three generations of your family—could be sent to the gulag. No dissent, in any form, is allowed. To the Korean people, the Kim family is a multi-generation version of Adolf Hitler. 

Kim Jong Un, through the building of a powerful arsenal of not only nuclear weapons that can hit U.S. allies and now possibly the United States homeland, but chemical and likely biological weapons as well, is simply following a well worn strategy—developing powerful weapons of mass destruction as the ultimate insurance policy. For if Washington did attack, even with massive force, if the Trump administration failed to destroy even one nuclear warhead, millions of people will likely perish, as Kim would have every incentive to unload what weapons he had left.

Knowing the stakes, what should President Trump do? The good news is that Washington does have cards to play.

First, we must reinforce our allies’ capabilities in the Asia-Pacific to defend themselves against any future North Korean provocations. That means increased missile defense platforms, especially by sending THAAD to Japan and making sure it stays put and is expanded in South Korea.

Second, we need to make sure North Korea is completely closed off from the international community in every way possible. We must make it clear we don’t consider the Kim regime a nation, but nothing more than a mob-style state, and treat it as such. This means no more Americans travelling to North Korea, sanctions must be fully enforced and expanded with any country, company or individual helping Pyongyang build missiles or nukes outed as an international pariah.  

Third, we need to do a better job of cutting off North Korea’s ability to make trouble in other places around the world, and that means doing all we can to cut its dangerous ties to Syria and Iran. Pyongyang has been dealing arms to Damascus and Tehran for years—something that must stop now. Even more troubling, experts have been warning for some time about Iran and North Korea trading missile technology. We simple can no longer allow this to continue, and must do all we can to halt such transactions. 

Fourth, China must be willing to help when it comes to this critical issue—or begin to pay some sort of price. Beijing needs to understand that Washington will no longer allow it to turn a blind eye to the North Korean threat. If China will not act, then America must make clear we can simply no longer have the same relationship as in years past, and must begin to reconsider our stance on other points of contention where we take Chinese interests into account—and that means in the South and East China Seas, Taiwan, trade and other areas.

Finally, America needs to consider the long game when it comes to North Korea. We all know the only way to solve this issue—no more North Korea. While regime change in a military sense is off the table—we have learned democracy at the barrel of a gun does not work—we do have the power to weaken the regime’s control over the population. Washington could take actions to back groups who are trying to get more information into the country. Tactics such as filling USB drives with current news and popular cultural have shown to be a smart strategy to achieve such aims. Clearly, taking away the power to control minds could be an important first step toward seeing this regime slip into the dust bin of history.

Like so many others, North Korea is a problem the Trump administration inherited – yet it has much work to do to contain the threat. While the road ahead is a long and dangerous one, it is one this administration must travel. The risks otherwise are too great.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former President Richard M. Nixon. Click here, for more on Mr. Kazianis.