Part 2: Thinking through the N. Korea crisis – Will China offer a solution?
Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a series about an examination of the North Korea crisis. Read Part 1 here.
This series is an attempt to provide clarification of the issues that American decision-makers must think through in deciding how to deal with the crisis with North Korea – a crisis that has been building for a quarter of a century and that may be coming to a head.
The initial question is whether there is any alternative to the two really bad options that readily present themselves: 1) allowing the rogue regime in North Korea to pose an ongoing nuclear threat to the United States and its allies, or 2) initiating a war to pre-emptively destroy that developing nuclear threat (and perhaps the regime itself).
The first piece in this series concluded — after exploring the question of whether there is any reason to believe that the North Korean regime can be intimidated into backing down — with the possibility that President Trump sent a naval armada to the seas around Korea not to intimidate the North Koreans, but to induce the Chinese to utilize more fully their leverage over the North Korean regime.
That brings us to the question: is there is a real possibility the Chinese could provide a scenario besides those two quite unattractive options described above?
In the imaginary meeting with all the relevant experts -with which I framed my inquiry in the first installment — I’d ask the expert on China:
“First, can an American threat to make war on the Korean peninsula induce the Chinese to apply maximal pressure on the North Koreans?
But then, second, is there anything the Chinese are able to do, even if they choose, that would compel the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear ambitions?
“What I’ve read over the years,” I’d say in posing that latter question, “has described the Chinese leverage over North Korea as economic. The idea seems to be that North Korea is so dependent on the Chinese for what limited viability their economy has, that China could essentially starve the North Korean regime into submission. Is that what the hope about a China scenario is about, or is there something more to it than that?”
If the “starve them out” scenario is indeed the basis for looking hopefully toward China – and the basis for what Trump and his advisers hope to accomplish by raising the specter of a war over this nuclear threat – then I would ask the experts on the North Korean regime:
“Does it seem plausible to you that the North Koreans would back off its nuclear-weapon program because their economy was being strangled?”
The question arises because, back in the 1990s, massive starvation in North Korea resulted in the deaths of three and a half million people, while even the survivors were eating the bark off the trees. Even in the face of such privation, the regime continued to pour its resources into its military and into its lavish public celebrations of itself. In view of that, I would ask the North Korea experts, “What reason is there to hope for the regime to change course to relieve the economic distress that China might be able to inflict upon them?”
Or, perhaps the experts would say, the hope is that the breakdown in the North Korean economy would lead to the people to rise up and overthrow their callous rulers.
“Is there a basis to hope for such a rebellion? The people of North Korea didn’t do anything of the sort in the 1990s. (A starving people don’t usually form a powerful force). And, I’d inquire, is it true, what one hears, that the North Korean people are so brainwashed that they are enthusiastic adulators of their rulers? If so, how likely would it be that they would blame their rulers for their suffering and rise in rebellion?”
I hope the experts would persuade me that I’m missing something – i.e. that there is a plausible scenario in which the North Koreans change course, and spare us the two bad options of acquiescence or war. At present, I don’t see reason to believe either intimidation or starvation will work. Unless the experts changed that view, I would then turn the discussion to this unpleasant question: which is worse – letting North Korea gain the ability to strike the U.S. with nukes, or attacking them to destroy that threat (and likely the regime itself) before that point is reached?
I might begin that discussion with this question:
“How unacceptable would it be for the North Koreans to be able to strike anywhere with nuclear weapons? Both China and Russia have possessed for years intercontinental missiles armed with nuclear weapons aimed at the United States. But we don’t lose sleep over that. Could we likewise live with reasonable comfort with the North Koreans having that capability?”
I would expect that question would lead into a discussion of the peculiar – and especially dark – nature of this North Korean regime.
No nation on Earth has so consistently chosen the role of the “outlaw,” and been so consistently belligerent as an international actor. Rather than choose to be a part of the world community, it has always chosen instead to violate international norms – seizing and even sinking ships, committing assassinations, making extreme threats.
And now, with the third generation of the ruling family at the helm, North Korea seems to be in the hands of a particularly inhumane person – a man willing to murder even his own kin to protect his power.
But, on the other side, it would likely be brought up that the motivation behind the North Korean rulers’ quest for this nuclear capability has been defensive. As they witnessed how the U.S. has overthrown other trouble-making regimes — Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya – the North Koreans concluded that those regimes would have survived if they’d had a nuclear deterrent. It was this understanding, it is widely said, that led the North Koreans to go all out to gain the ability to threaten nuclear retaliation against the United States (or anyone who might seek to topple them).
So can we rest easy with the thought that their nuclear threat would be a kind of “Don’t Tread on Me” message to the U.S. and the world?
Or should we conclude from the apparently paranoid nature of the regime – and especially the present ruler – that we cannot count on the North Koreans to perceive accurately their “defensive” needs, or to pursue their self-defense with the rational calculation that we have good reason to expect from the rulers of China and Russia?
My guess is that the experts would come to a general consensus that North Korean nukes are a greater danger than would be comfortable to accept. But just how much more threatening the North Korean possession of such capabilities would be judged to be – that’s the big question.
A lot would hinge on that judgment, because while we would be wise to take big risks, and even pay a great cost, to eliminate a truly major risk of nuclear attack on the United States or our friends, the costs of preemptively going to war to destroy that threat are also huge.
> Read Part 3 of this series on Thursday.
In the 1980s, Andy Schmookler was tasked with distilling the views of foreign policy experts at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs (CSIS) in Washington, and interviewed experts for a project at the Public Agenda Foundation about how to find security in an age of nuclear weapons. In the 1990s, he was hired by the U.S. Army to help think through some particular issues concerning weapons of mass destruction. Dr. Schmookler is also the author of The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.