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Why We Are Where We Are With North Korea - And Where Do We Go From Here?
David S. Maxwell
Let me begin with two key points and a question:
We have failed to prevent north Korea from developing nuclear weapons.
Kim Jong-un believes he “won” at the UN General Assembly last month.
What is the only agreement that north Korea has nominally lived up to?
Twenty-three years of halfhearted efforts to prevent north Korea from developing nuclear weapons has resulted in six nuclear tests and an intercontinental ballistic missile capability (and a submarine launched missile capability in development) that may soon be capable of striking the United States. Why has the north been hell bent on developing a nuclear deterrent?
It can be traced back to the Korean War and MacArthur’s threat to use nuclear weapons on China. Since the 1950s the Kim Family Regime has sought to develop a nuclear program. The most telling explanation came from Hwang Jong-yop in 1997. He was the highest-ranking defector and the father of Juche ideology. When asked why the regime has expended so many resources on its military yet has never executed its campaign plan to unify the peninsula he responded with “American nuclear weapons. North Korea cannot win a nuclear war with the US.” This both explains that deterrence works and illustrates why the north has relentlessly pursued nuclear weapons. There are also of course the Ukraine, Iraq, and Libya examples which scare the hell out of the regime but also inform us as to why the regime will not trust the US. The regime also makes an important assumption: The US will not attack a nation that possesses nuclear weapons.
The vital national interest of north Korea is survival of the Kim Family Regime. The strategic aim since 1948 has been unification of the peninsula under the north’s control so that it can ensure regime survival. The regime will unify through one of two courses of action, coerce the ROK and if coercion fails, then by force. The key condition required for both coercion and execution of its campaign plan is US forces removed from the peninsula. Therefore, an additional key element of its strategy has been to both marginalize the ROK internationally and split the ROK/US Alliance. One of the methods of marginalizing the ROK is to make sure that north Korea gains international prominence and is “respected” for its superior military strength.
We have failed to prevent north Korea from developing nuclear weapons for two reasons. First is the erroneous assumption we made in 1994 when we negotiated the Agreed Framework. We assumed that the Kim Family Regime would collapse in the near future since the Cold War had ended and it had lost significant financial backing from its communist benefactors, the USSR and China (who began demanding payment for aid). The death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 just prior to the conclusion of the Agreed Framework further reinforced the strength of the assumption. This resulted in two conditions. One was simply benign neglect of the north Korean nuclear problem and second this resulted in a lack of action to ensure that the north did not gain access to nuclear material, technology, and plans. We did not foresee the AQ Kahn network and continued external support and collaboration for nuclear development. Furthermore, we did not foresee the election of Kim Dae Jung in 1997 and Roh Moo-hyun in 2002 which led to ten years of the Sunshine and Peace and Prosperity Policies which surely assisted in preventing regime collapse with the billions of dollars of unreciprocated aid that did not lead to the change in regime behavior as was hoped for by both Presidents and their supporters, to include the current President Moon Jae-in who was Roh’s Chief of Staff. As a side note, if even half the economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts we are seeing today by the Trump Administration and international community were executed in the 1990’s the north would not have developed its nuclear program so rapidly and may not have been able to develop any weapons by this point.
It should be obvious to us that Kim Jong-un is trying to present himself and his regime as an equal to the U.S. I am convinced he believes he has “won” because he is "talking" directly to President Trump and President Trump is responding to him and his actions. As already noted, one of the objectives of the Kim Family Regime has been to be respected on the world stage and in recent decades to be respected as a nuclear power. If we read Kim's speech closely, unusual because it was delivered by Kim and it is a first person statement, we can see that it is the nearest Kim Jong-un has come to making a statesman-like speech. If we assess the number of subjects that were discussed at the UN General Assembly north Korea has to be near or at the top of the list for most discussed. Kim Jong-un, without showing up at the UN General Assembly, was arguably (and especially in his mind) the most influential national leader among all the members of the UN. He has now garnered the respect he has long desired (and of course he interprets all the focus on him because the international community fears his military prowess and capabilities). The exchange of rhetoric and the words directed against him reinforce his domestic political legitimacy. The week of the UN General Assembly meeting, along with his exchanges with POTUS will provide more support for propaganda themes and messages than any week in north Korean history.
This brings us to the question of what is the only agreement that the north has maintained over time? The answer is the Armistice and although there have been violations and threats and even actual statements of withdrawal it has remained in effect for 64 years and has helped to maintain the temporary truce between north and South. There is a second question: who negotiated the Armistice? The simple answer is military leaders, specifically general and flag officers. Why is this important? Because it gives us some insight into what is important to the Kim Family Regime and what institution is trusted and respected. It also may point the way ahead for the current situation.
The north has never respected diplomatic activities. Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been a mouthpiece for the most part. When the north sent a delegation to the South in 2015 it sent General Officers. Some of the most important talks held between north and South have been by military leaders (and secret ones between the intelligence services as well).
Both the US and the north have backed themselves into diplomatic corners. The US demands talks beginning with a pledge from the north that it is committed to denuclearization. Nuclear weapons are so important to regime legitimacy and survival that the north has changed its constitution declaring that it is a nuclear power. It has stated time and again that it will not give up its nuclear weapons. These two positions are simply incommensurable and thus have closed the diplomatic path to a solution.
We should be clear. The entire security problem on the Korean peninsula is because of the unnatural division of the peninsula between north and South. The Armistice recognized that the “Korea question” had to be solved and the military leaders wrote into the agreement that political leaders had to come together to solve it. They have failed to do so for 64 years. The only way we are going to see an end to the regime’s nuclear program and its threats and to the crimes against humanity being committed against the Korean people living in the north by the mafia-like crime family cult known as the Kim family regime is through achievement of unification and the establishment of a United Republic of Korea that is secure and stable, non-nuclear, economically vibrant, and unified under a liberal constitutional form of government determined by the Korean people. Of course the Kim Family Regime is never going to agree to this as long as it is in power.
Our options are limited. Diplomacy has failed and does not present a viable option for a way forward. A preventative war or even pre-emptive strike will likely result in death and destruction and expenditure of blood and treasure on a scale not seen in the world since 1953 and it will likely be on an even greater scale in the 21st century. Externally imposed regime such as was done in Iraq is not a viable option as it is really in the same category as preventative war. The only option is for us to cope, contain, and manage the situation until new leadership emerges in the north that will seek a diplomatic solution to the Korea question.
So how do we cope, contain, and manage the situation? The answer lies in what has worked in the past: military to military talks at the General Officer level. I recommend that we propose such talks to be held with the Commander and Deputy Commander of the ROK/US Combined Forces Command and the ROK and US Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff representing the Alliance and the Minister of the People’s Armed Forces and the commanders of the frontline corps, (IV, II, V, and I corps) representing the north. These talks would have no diplomatic preconditions.
Two questions arise: Why would the north agree to this and what would be the purpose of such talks?
First, the north may agree because such a proposal would be recognition of the strength and power of the north Korean military. Kim would assess this would mean that he is being further legitimatized and with no diplomatic preconditions he might assess that he can now return to his playbook which uses provocations, threats of provocation, and strategic demonstrations (nuclear and missile tests) to gain political and economic concessions. He will likely believe that this is reinforcing his “win” at the UN General Assembly.
Second, the purpose of these talks would be solely to conduct a deterrent dialogue and to prevent escalation and miscalculation among professional military officers. There would be no discussion of denuclearization but there would be a clear articulation of the costs of an attack on the South. Once the deterrence dialogue is established there could be discussion of other issues such as operations in the West Sea in the vicinity of the Northern Limit Line, the Northwest Islands, and other areas of military concern.
The purpose of these talks would be solely to cope, contain, and manage the Korea problem until such time as diplomats can assume the lead or there is a change in leadership in the north. The ROK and US can develop and execute a long term strategy focused on unification and preparations to support an emerging new leader in Pyongyang. Another benefit of this approach would be establishing relationships among general officers. This will be crucial in any instability scenario. If ROK generals can reach out directly to the north Korean front line corps commanders during instability the chance of conflict through misunderstanding and miscalculation can be reduced.
Most important the ROK/US Alliance would operate from the strength of its deterrent capability. Deterrence has worked for 64 years and will continue to work if the ROK/US Alliance is sustained. We can try a return to a sunshine policy and engagement or six party talks or any other creative new initiatives. But before such attempts are made it is critically important that all actions rest on the foundation of deterrence. Critical to deterrence is ensuring that military decision makers clearly understand the capabilities and intent of their opponents. The best way to do that is to conduct a deterrence dialogue with senior military leaders.
As Churchill said, “it is better to jaw-jaw than war-war.” No one knows that better than a military leader.
David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director for the Center for security Studies in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is a retied US Army Special Forces Colonel with five tours in the Republic of Korea.