Emphasize Security in Dealing with North Korea

North Korea is a multilateral conundrum. Despite enduring decades of confrontation and isolation, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continues to accelerate nuclear development, miniaturize nuclear weapons, and produce intercontinental missiles.

Failure to restrain the DPRK, along with understandable horror at its mass violation of human rights, caused some analysts to urge Washington to emphasize improving human rights and overthrowing the Kim dynasty. For instance, Carl Gershman of the National Endowment for Democracy recently argued that “human rights must come first.” After the recent tightening of sanctions against the North, the Wall Street Journal declared: “Now is the time to squeeze even harder with a goal of regime change.”

The North Korean nuclear crisis has been raging for more than a quarter century. Unfortunately, dealing with Pyongyang requires choosing the least bad alternative.

So far negotiations have failed. Few observers believe the DPRK is prepared to trade away its nuclear arsenal.

Despite agreeing to tougher sanctions, Beijing has refused to end energy and food aid, which helps keep the Kim dynasty afloat. Military strikes against the North’s nuclear facilities almost certainly would trigger retaliation and potentially full-scale war.

Unfortunately, promoting regime change is unlikely to improve human rights but probably would exacerbate the security threats which have unsettled the region.

The North Korean system is uniquely odious. But like other authoritarian regimes it emphasizes self-preservation. In this sense human rights may be more important than nuclear weapons to Pyongyang.

Thus, to predicate security discussions on human rights concessions is to preclude the former. While no negotiation seems likely to strip the North of its nuclear weapons, Pyongyang might be amenable to making more limited but still worthwhile agreements—adopting limits on proliferation, for instance.

Moreover, launching a human rights crusade without the means to achieve the end is little more than an act of moral vanity. Unfortunately, the U.S. government has no ability to protect North Koreans from their own government.

As long as security issues remain unresolved, Pyongyang is unlikely to even address human rights. DPRK officials would likely see more intense human rights demands as further evidence of attempted regime change.

As oft has been said, even paranoids have enemies. The North has watched the U.S. routinely overthrow the latter’s adversaries. Openly attempting to overthrow Kim Jong-un would make him dig in further to resist any liberalization.

Moreover, prioritizing human rights and regime change would push the People’s Republic of China back toward the North. The PRC has been frustrated with its small ally, but is not going to punish the North to improve the latter’s human rights practices. The PRC might seek its own variant of regime change, yielding a more predictable, responsible authoritarian government ready to cooperate with its big neighbor.

Indeed, Western governments should be careful what they wish for. The prime question for regime change should be: compared to what? Both Iraq and Libya have demonstrated how removing a dictator can create greater hardship for oppressed peoples and security threats for other nations.

As I wrote for Forbes: “a messy denouement to the Kim regime would invite military intervention by South Korea, the U.S., and China, creating an explosive situation. Or Kim might be replaced by a less confrontational dictator more willing to respect the PRC’s interests—indeed, one supported by if not elevated by Beijing.”

Such a regime might continue to oppress the North Korean people, maintain threatening weapons programs, and challenge the Republic of Korea, while enjoying China’s support. In which case the West would end up entrenching the system which it had hoped to destroy.

There are no easy answers when it comes to the DPRK. However, the West’s priority should remain to diminish the security threats posed by Pyongyang.

Progress in this area would improve conditions for eventual political and human rights reform. Frustration with North Korea should not lead the West to allow the perfect to become enemy of the good.