It would be tempting, as Glen(n) Reynolds has suggested – tongue firmly planted in cheek, no doubt – to handle the issue of Teh Crazies from North Korea by taking off and nuking Pyongyang from orbit.
It’d be the only way to be sure.
It’s also tempting, as Iowahawk’s David Burge has tweeted, to note that “When you ‘unclench your fist’ with Iran & reach out to ‘Taliban moderates,’ don’t act all surprised when North Korea starts firing missiles,” or that “What? War about to break out in Korea? This looks like a job for Articulate Part Time Adjunct Law School Professorman!”
Tempting, and even amusing in a whistling-past-the-graveyard kind of way. But not particularly helpful. North Korea has been a problem for a long, long time.
With any normal country, a country even minimally responsive to the needs of its citizens for example, or one that uses a rational risk/benefit calculus informed at least superficially by a sense of morality, it might be possible to check such rude ambitions by threats of military reciprocity. But North Korea, famously, is not a normal country. It is a gulag masquerading as a worker’s paradise, one in which the warden and his staff would rather burn the whole prison down, and the neighborhood alongside it, rather than see their own privileges reduced. Fundamentally, the Nork leadership believes the path of confrontation offers more advantage than does the path of accommodation. Their only real goal is regime survival, and they have calculated – accurately, I believe – that their apparent willingness to throw themselves off the cliff so far exceeds the rational world’s willingness to accompany them that any provocation short of full invasion renders them invulnerable to counter-stroke. That they can go around sinking corvettes and shelling fishing villages with impunity, in the full knowledge that should the South Koreans or their US allies reply proportionately, the threat of turning Seoul into a “sea of fire” using artillery fires – or even nuclear strikes – renders us militarily impotent.
Faced with no good options, it’s also tempting for policy analysts to try yet another round of appeasement:
North Korea is the longest running U.S. policy failure. We’ve tried just about everything: war, containment, threats, isolation, an agreed framework, Six Party Talks, and bilateral discussions. The State Department has accumulated over 60 years of frustrations. The Pentagon is largely out of the equation given the devastating consequences of a military attack and subsequent war on the Korean peninsula. Now, the Obama administration comes into the White House under the general banner of “change.” But with its default policy of malign neglect, it has only offered more of the same…
North Korea will only change internally when its external relations change dramatically, and that will require a new U.S. approach. We’ve tried brinksmanship and containment for over 60 years and the only change has been North Korea going nuclear. By following the example of détente with Vietnam and China, we can minimize the risk that North Korea poses to the international community and also encourage positive changes within the country. Only a fundamentally altered relationship with North Korea — economic engagement, a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War, diplomatic normalization — will change the dynamic by removing the threat that sustains the Kim Jong-Il regime and keeps the North Korean garrison mentality intact.
Vietnam only wanted to be left alone, and China only wanted to grow their economy – both desires needed the cooperation of the wider world, the first through indifference, the second through export trade. North Korea wants none of those things: They want to ruthlessly control their population and grotesquely mismanage their economy, and use the good offices of the international community to abet them. Vietnam and China are poor analogues. In fact, the closest historical parallel for North Korea may well be the dying hours of a reality-denying Soviet Union.
But just as Jimmy Carter’s policy of détente with the Soviets merely delayed the regime’s inevitable collapse, so too would more food and developmental aid for North Korea merely extend a thuggish regime’s brutality.
It would be difficult – it is difficult – to tolerate the escalating series of provocations that the North Korean regime would inflict upon its southern neighbors. But to respond militarily risks holocaust, while responding diplomatically invites another cycle of alternating shakedowns and provocations, prolonging the agony. What cannot be cured must be endured.
Unless China deigns to intervene with their problematic protegé, the West should offer the North Koreans nothing and respond to their provocations with the kind of moral indifference apportioned to earthquakes and hurricanes. We should await their inevitable collapse with patience, and then leave China to pick up the pieces.
North Korea is a nuisance, albeit an occasionally deadly one. China will be important in the 21st century, if they can rise in a responsible way – a question very much in doubt today. A continued policy of malign neglect towards North Korea leading to the collapse of the regime might well be be a good house warming party for the PRC’s welcome to the world of serious nations.
Not too soon.