In the wake of North Korea’s January nuclear test, White House spokesman Josh Earnest described U.S. goals for the Korean peninsula. “We want the North Koreans to end their provocative acts,” he said, “both in the form of missile tests and nuclear tests, to commit to denuclearization, and to demonstrate a commitment to pursuing peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.” Worthy goals, to be sure, but impossible to achieve as long as the Kim regime is in power.
To be clear, Kim Jong-un will never commit to denuclearization nor to peace and stability on the peninsula. To do so would be antithetical to the regime’s very nature. Writing recently for National Review, my colleague Nicholas Eberstadt described the North’s “essentially messianic—and unapologetically racialist—vision of history.” In that vision, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will unite the Korean people, throw out foreign invaders, and establish DPRK rule over the peninsula.
Nuclear weapons, then, are not simply a deterrent but a tool by which to achieve unification. And for Pyongyang to genuinely commit to peace and stability on the peninsula would be to abandon the regime’s animating vision. Kim can sacrifice neither and expect to maintain the support of elites or the legitimacy of his rule. The North Koreans have enshrined their status as a nuclear power in the constitution and have repeatedly said they will never bargain away their nuclear weapons. There is little reason to believe that is simply a negotiating ploy.
Recognizing that the regime is the problem leads to what may be an uncomfortable conclusion: the United States and its partners must contain North Korea in the near-term while pursuing a longer term policy of regime change.
Since the latest nuclear and missile tests, the United States, South Korea, and Japan have all imposed strong, unilateral sanctions on North Korea. The United Nations Security Council has also weighed in with its strongest resolution yet; these international sanctions, if enforced—and that’s a big if—will have real bite. The United States must now move to completely cut the DPRK off from the international financial system as it did in 2005.
Altogether, this tightening web of financial and trade sanctions will make it increasingly difficult for Pyongyang to access hard cash, which is necessary both to support nuclear and missile programs and to ensure elite cohesion in the North. The idea is not to bring North Korea to the bargaining table—though the allies should consider any offers from the North to negotiate over its nuclear program—but rather to starve its weapons programs of resources and to sow internal dissension within the regime.
In addition to stronger sanctions, the United States and its partners should step up pressure on North Korea on the human rights front. The allies should pursue two simultaneous lines of effort. Internationally, they should apply unrelenting pressure on China to encourage it to live up to is international obligations: Beijing must treat North Koreans that flee across its border as political refugees and speed their way to South Korea rather than send them back to the North. The United States should, in addition, repeatedly call a UN Security Council vote on referring Kim Jong-un and his top lieutenants to The Hague for prosecution for crimes against humanity. Beijing will use its veto, but it may grow tired of repeatedly, publicly allying itself with the world’s most odious regime.
At the same time, the allies should enhance their efforts to provide the North Korean people with access to reporting on the world at large, on life in South Korea, and on Kim Jong-un himself. Citizens and soldiers alike should know that while they tighten their belts, the Pyongyang elite feast on Russian caviar and French cheeses. It’s far past time for the Kim regime’s domestic legitimacy to be seriously challenged.
Finally, the United States and South Korea should invest more deeply in their own self-defense capabilities. Talks over the deployment to the Republic of Korea of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which would enhance the South’s defense against ballistic missile threats, are a good start. At home, the United States should expand the number of ground-based interceptors while also investing in a next-generation GBI. North Korea is unlikely to ever host large numbers of intercontinental ballistic missiles—against a limited threat, continental missile defense can and should be made nearly airtight. American and South Korean investments in defenses can turn North Korean missiles into wasting assets.
The U.S.-ROK alliance should also take steps to further mitigate the Northern artillery threat, especially to the Seoul metropolitan area. The first order of business is to identify and keep tabs on the thousands of artillery pieces beyond the Demilitarized Zone. The Korean People’s Army should have little doubt of the alliance’s ability to identify, track, and target the field guns that effectively allow North Korea to hold millions of South Koreans hostage. Washington and Seoul should also make defense against incoming rounds a priority; in this regard, the U.S. Army’s High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator is a promising technology.
The steps described above may not bring stability to the Korean Peninsula in the near term. Indeed, the first two lines of effort are designed to sow instability in the North. But the quest for stability is a mirage, and one that cedes the initiative to Pyongyang, which has opted to destabilize the peninsula at times of its choosing while putting the onus for escalation control on the allies. Going forward, the allies must be far more proactive in shaping the peninsula’s security environment.
Just how the Kim regime will fall remains difficult to discern, but there is a clear moral and strategic imperative to hasten its collapse. Unification under the Republic of Korea is the only way to ensure a nuclear-free, democratic, and flourishing Korean peninsula.