In the midst of the squabbling over the memo or memos form the House Intelligence Committee that do, or do not, have anything to do with the House or Senate or Special Counsel’s Russia probe, and the slow motion debate over who has to concede what just to keep the government open past the end of this week, and the stock market gyrations, the start of the Winter Olympics promises a refreshing change of pace. Surely, exciting winter sports, shoe horned in between long commercial breaks, with feel good stories of U.S. and other athletes (including the Nigerian women’s bobsled team) [https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/31/africa/nigeria-bobsled-team-winter-olympics/index.html] will lighten our mood and let us think about something other than politics.
Or not. The fact that the Games are being held in South Korea, in a small city roughly 100 miles from North Korea, pushes the political dimension front and center. The United States and South Korea have suspended military exercises for the course of the Winter Olympics, North and South Korea are fielding a unified Olympic contingent, North Korea has not tested missiles or nuclear devices and both sides seems to have a declared a moratorium on inflammatory rhetoric. A two week lull is better than nothing, but it will be over all too soon.
In fact a reminder that the fundamental issues involving North Korea have not gone away came when the White House announced that it was not going to nominate Victor Cha as ambassador to South Korea. To most of us who have busy lives and live outside the Washington Beltway and the small community of “foreign policy professionals” (aka “The Blob”) that factoid does not even rise to the level of trivia. But to some observers it suggests there is a serious debate in the White House and the national security establishment over how to respond to North Korea. Victor Cha is widely regarded as the man who, literally, wrote the book on North Korea. The son of Korean immigrants, he was a rising star in academic circles when George W. Bush appointed him to the National Security Council and made him his top adviser on Korea. His current position: an endowed Chair at Georgetown Universty and work with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reflects his status as a classic foreign policy intellectual who moves easily between government service and high powered academic positions.
While this must have been a disappointment for Professor Cha after undergoing an extensive background check, does it really matter to the rest of us? I think the answer is yes, because his appointment was apparently derailed by his open skepticism about the so-called “bloody nose” proposal, which we’ll discuss a little later.
How you react to renewed attention to the conflict between Pyongyang and Washington depends on how you answer some key questions.
What Kind Of Regime is North Korea?
This is the single most important question, because how you answer it has a direct impact on everything else.
The issue is not whether the Kim government is a totalitarian regime with a crumbling economy and large military establishment that commands the lion’s share of very scarce resources. The issue is whether the regime is rational. By “rational” I mean the ability to make decisions based on a calculation of costs and benefits. A rational regime may be ruled by individuals who have some startling quirks and strikingly odd views of the world, but they are collectively able to appreciate the consequences of various actions for the goals they are pursuing. An irrational regime is one that is either pursing goals that are impossible to attain or is focused on a single goal that it will pursue at any cost.
A rational regime can be an adversary, pursuing goals that that are inimical to one’s own interests or even survival, but can potentially be bargained with, especially if one can understand the assumptions and values that drive it. An irrational regime is an implacable enemy with whom one cannot bargain (because there is nothing you can offer as a reward or threaten as a punishment that will change their behavior.) Irrational regimes must ultimately be destroyed before they can destroy you.
Both North Korea and the United States have to answer this question. If each decides that the other, despite rhetoric and cross-cultural problems of communication and interpretation, is rational, we can expect some kind of negotiation that will, at a minimum reduce tensions and the immediate threat of conflict. If either decides that the other is an implacable, irrational enemy the chances for a violent confrontation increase enormously.
Why Does North Korea Have a Nuclear Missile Program?
Two reasons most often cited by scholars and analysts who think North Korea has a rational basis for its weapons program are: 1) it is one – perhaps the only – area in which the Kim dynasty has been successful; and 2) it is a guarantee of survival for a country surrounded by powerful enemies.
For those who think Pyongyang is ultimately irrational, neither the supposedly rational reasons for the program make sense. 1) How is it reasonable or rational to starve its own people, risking an almost unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe, for the vanity and political interests of the Kim family? 2) North Korea’s self image of a workers’ paradise under siege from imperialist enemies is so far from the truth that no reasonable person could believe it.
Why Have past Efforts to Deal With North Korea Failed?
One answer is that past U.S. administrations were lousy negotiators and made bad deals and then tried to rely on international sanctions to coerce North Korea but failed to get China and Russia to cooperate in carrying them out. A second answer is that the United States and South Korea have been inconsistent in their approach to the North, sometimes favoring engagement and hopes for peaceful reunification, at other times taking a harder line and implying that Korea could be reunified only when the Kim regime was out of the way and not always living up to the bargains they ah made. A third answer is that North Korea has changed its policy over time in response to internal and external events. The fourth answer is that North Korea has never bargained in good faith. Most likely the truth lies in some combination of two or more of these views.
What Should be the U.S. Goal?
This depends on how you assess the current state of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. Do you accept Pyongyang’s claim that it is now a nuclear weapons state? There are no official rules for entry into the nuclear states club, but the world grudgingly conceded that India and Pakistan were members once they had successfully detonated a nuclear device and had some means of delivering a warhead beyond their own borders. North Korea claimed to have successfully conducted an underground test of a thermonuclear (hydrogen bomb) device in 2017 and U.S. intelligence estimates that the North has produced about 60 nuclear devices. North Korea has successfully tested both medium range and intercontinental missiles but has not demonstrated that it can produce a device small enough to be mounted on a missile and delivered outside the country.
If you decide that North Korea is not yet a “nuclear weapons state” then the goal for the U.S. and the rest of the world remains stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
If you decide that North Korea has gone so far down the path to nuclear weapons that it is too late to put the evil genie back in the bottle, then the goal becomes management. One major fear among people who have tried to think about nuclear weapons is the so-called “Nth Nation Problem.” The 8 countries that are currently counted as nuclear weapons states have so far behaved rationally and have avoided a catastrophic accident. But if nuclear weapons continue to proliferate, there will be a country, maybe the 9th, maybe the 10th. maybe … but somewhere in the series there is an unknown “nth” country that will not behave rationally or will blunder into an accidental nuclear exchange. So the after a state acquires a nuclear capability the goal has to shift to 1) trying to make sure it is not backed into a corner where it feels there is no other option but use of its weapons; and 2) trying to make sure it has a really good system for avoiding accidents.
So far no country has accepted North Korea’s claim of nuclear weapons status. It would mean a significant change in the power dynamics in East Asia and would almost certainly force the rest of the world to make some major concessions to Pyongyang.
Is There An Alternative to Negotiations?
Apparently there are some people in the White House and National Securioty Council and perhaps Pentagon who think there is. While no one knows for sure why Victor Cha’s appointment as ambassador to South Korea was so abruptly yanked so late in the process, it is widely believed to be related to his appearance at a panel discussion last December with other foreign policy heavyweights where the topic of a “Bloody Nose” strike was raised and Cha, like all the other panelists, labeled it a very bad idea.
(Since I think the “bloody nose” proposal is an incredibly stupid and reckless idea, it is hard to be completely balanced in outlining the pros and cons.)
The “bloody nose” logic goes something like this.
Negotiations have failed in the past and will fail in the future, because the North Korean regime has proven time and time again that it cannot be trusted to live up to any agreement it makes. Imposing sanctions through the UN or unilaterally has not worked because even if they were perfectly enforced, sanctions are not punishing enough to make North Korea give up. More punishment is needed.
The most important military installations in North Korea, both nuclear and non-nuclear, are deeply buried and widely dispersed. The success of a massive strike aimed at destroying all the nuclear sites or destroying the centers of regime power could not be guaranteed and faced with the threat of destruction, the Kim regime would almost certainly retaliate with whatever capability it had left. Even worse than the damage done to South Korea in a retaliatory attack would be the consequences of a collapse of the government in North Korea which would mean millions of starving people crossing the border into China and South Korea.
But a limited U.S. strike, using B-2 stealth bombers and cruise missiles with precisely targeted “bunker busting” bombs will demonstrate our ability to take out any target we want, without doing so much damage that the North panics and thinks it is about to be totally destroyed. (Like the playground tough guy who says, “I could really beat you up, but I’ll just give you a bloody nose.”)
Advocates of this strategy also argue that North Korea either can’t or won’t retaliate. There is no evidence that at the moment the North can mount a nuclear warhead on a missile and send it to South Korea or Japan, let alone Guam or Hawai’i. The North does have medium range missiles that can fairly reliably deliver conventional explosives but, it is argued, they are mostly useful as a threat and if North Korea tried to launch them, some combination of air strikes and anti-missile defenses would neutralize them. The North does have hundreds of artillery pieces just north of the Demilitarized Zone, and some of them could hit the suburbs of Seoul, but not cause the hundreds of thousands of causalities that some people fear. And if North Korea did open fire, that would enable South Korean and American artillery and air power to destroy the guns since we’d then know exactly where they are. In short, the argument goes, if North Korea tried to retaliate they will render themselves defenseless. There are lots of reasons to have a parade but it is hard to imagine that Thursday's big military parade in Pyongyang is not intended, at least in part, to give "bloody nose" advocates second thoughts.
Critics of the idea point out that there are a whole series of very iffy “if’s” in the plans and the project requires very rational behavior from a regime that “Bloody Nose” proponents tend to label as crazily irrational. If the planners are wrong and North Korea does retaliate there could be hundreds of thousands civilian casualties in South Korea and Japan. An unprovoked attack on North Korea would also, I think, cause great harm to perceptions of the United States in South Korea and Japan and would greatly complicate our relationship with our two most important allies in Asia.
So It’s More Talk, Talk, Talk?
I think so, without, hopefully any inflammatory tweets. It seems to me that the on-again, off-again Six Party (U.S., China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and North Korea) talks offer the best chance of finding a mix of rewards and punishments to convince North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. The only other viable alternative, I think, is at some point to choke down the unpleasant fact of a nuclear North Korea and change the essential nature of the issue from stopping proliferation to managing nuclear weapons.