There is an interesting, somewhat counter-intuitive aspect to the current North Korea-United States war of words: the further one gets from the source of the threat, the more frantic they seem to become.
South Koreans, always sitting under the shadow of North Korea’s long-range artillery, are going about their daily business with little or no concern about Kim Jong-un’s recent threats; they have learned to take them with a huge grain of salt. The people of Guam, sitting at ground zero, seem more concerned about the impact on tourism than about impacting missiles. In my hometown of Honolulu, a few civil defence officials are talking about training citizens about disaster drills – I’m old enough to remember when we used to practise getting under our desks in grammar school (but, alas, too old and too heavy to fit under my desk nowadays) – but few are really worried.
Meanwhile, on the US east coast, still safely out of range, pundits are talking about Armageddon and an impending new Cuban missile crisis. My advice to all: take a deep breath, count to 10, and then relax! We are not on the brink of disaster. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, another Cuban missile crisis – recall that the United States and the USSR were capable of destroying the earth multiple times over; few really believe North Korea can today put a nuclear warhead on a missile and deliver it anywhere, much less against the US. If it tries to do so, it risks being rapidly removed from the face of the earth, a fact Pyongyang’s leaders clearly understand. The whole point behind their acquiring nuclear weapons is to enhance their survival, not to bring about certain destruction.
The main difference between today and prior periods of tension (note: I do not say “crisis”) is the hyperbole is flying in both directions. For years now, we have learned not to take Pyongyang seriously when it lets loose with its colourful rhetorical barrages. Why President Trump sees some advantage in emulating this behaviour is difficult to fathom. There is some solace in the view that barking dogs don’t bite, but a little less growling would not be a bad thing.
WATCH: Trump counters North Korea threat with ‘fire and fury’
Breathless headlines to the contrary, the probability of conflict actually breaking out remains low. While the headlines cry out that “Trump escalates rhetoric” or “doubles down” on his threats to Pyongyang, in truth he went from threatening “fire and fury” if they said bad things to if they did bad things against the US or allies. “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded,” Trump warned, “should North Korea act unwisely.” The operative word is ‘act’. This brings Trump squarely in line, not only with recent comments made by Defence Secretary James Mattis, among others, but also with longstanding US policy – the US has no intention of initiating hostilities but to respond with great force (“like the world has never seen”) if it or its allies are attacked.
The official US position is that “all options are on the table” in dealing with the North Korea nuclear and missile challenge. This is as it should be, but timing is everything. While the day may come when a pre-emptive attack or a preventive war is the only way to ward off an attack on the US homeland, we are clearly not there yet. Military action should and must always be the last resort. The lives of millions of South Koreans (not to mention tens of thousands of Americans based, living in, or visiting Seoul on any given day) will be put at severe risk, even if victory is eventually assured.
While there are dozens of variations on the theme, when it comes down to it, there are really only four categories of options in dealing with Pyongyang. The two extremes – regime acceptance (agreeing to the North’s outlandish demands) and regime removal (via preventive or pre-emptive military action) – need to be set aside, at least for now. These are last resort options. This leaves regime transformation – “bringing Kim Jong-un to his senses, not to his knees”, as one American admiral put it, or regime destabilisation, or regime change through non-military means.
Washington, through at least four previous administrations, has been trying to transform the regime. That is the primary stated purpose of the various UN Security Council resolutions as well. But neither the incentives nor the consequences have thus far been sufficient to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions. UNSCR 2371, adopted this month, represents the first real attempt to make the consequences severe enough to bring the North back to the negotiating table. It suggests economic incentives will be provided if denuclearisation proceeds. But it remains to be seen if it, unlike previous iterations, it will be vigorously enforced by all parties (read China and Russia). If not, regime destabilisation or regime change via non-military means may become the least worst option short of acquiescence or war.
WATCH: Guam’s governor responds to North Korea threat
The Pacific Forum’s founder, RADM Joe Vasey, now 100 years old but still thinking strategically, proposes a grand bargain with Pyongyang in which the US would offer a mini-Marshall Plan and security assurances (hopefully backed by China and Russia) in return for verifiable, complete denuclearisation. It would begin with a special emissary’s visit to Pyongyang explaining to Pyongyang that there are only two options left – regime transformation or regime destabilisation – and that this is it best and final choice.
The emissary would also make clear that a refusal to accept this proposal would compel the US to take the second path, one aimed at regime destabilisation and/or collapse. If the current regime refuses to accept Washington’s “grand bargain”, then the US is left with only two alternatives: accept the DPRK as a nuclear-weapon state or bring about the regime’s collapse in hopes that a successor government will be more amenable. This alternative begins with propaganda broadcasts aimed at the North Korean people and other ruling elites explaining what kind of an opportunity their leader has just rejected in return for future suffering and sacrifice.
The time is rapidly approaching (if not already here) that a policy of actively pursuing and promoting regime change needs to be clearly put on the table. All too often, regime change is equated to military action but there are a number of overt and covert steps that can be taken to destabilise and ultimately replace the Kim Jong-un regime with one more willing to trade its nuclear capability for economic development and international recognition.
Traditionally, the North Korean elite have rallied around the ruling family since this was the best guarantee of their own survival and success. As more senior officials face the firing squad, however – and rumour has it that six of the eight pallbearers at his father’s funeral have been purged or put to death – the reverse may become the case. Psychological operations can hasten this view. For its part, Pyongyang has long accused Washington and Seoul of pursuing a regime change policy. Perhaps it’s time to show the North what one really looks like. Even if this option is not pursued, openly discussing it will send an important signal to Pyongyang that time may not in fact be on its side. ■
Ralph Cossa is the president of Pacific Forum CSIS