Reduce Expectations and Withdraw Troops in Dealing with North Korea

Kim Jong-un’s gift to the world is North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. Washington should respond by backing away from a potential conflict that is not its own.

Although Western intelligence widely disbelieves the DPRK’s claim to have tested a thermonuclear device, or H-bomb, Kim Jong-un has clearly demonstrated that nothing will dissuade the regime from expanding and improving its nuclear arsenal.

The North’s action has led to widespread demands for action. Alas, no one has good ideas about what to do.

Pyongyang again ignored “the international community” because “the international community” has no cost-effective means to restrain the DPRK. Although as assistant secretary of defense Ashton Carter advocated military strikes against North Korean nuclear facilities, most people on and off the Korean peninsula don’t believe the answer to a potential war is to start an almost certain war.

Sanctions long have been the West’s go-to answer. Congress already was considering three different enhanced sanctions bills and the UN Security Council is planning new economic penalties.

But the North has never let public hardship get in the way of its political objectives. So far the People’s Republic of China has refused to encourage regime collapse by cutting economic ties and eliminating energy and food support. Moreover, Russia, with a newly revived relationship with the DPRK, insisted that any response be “appropriate” and “proportionate.”

Whether there ever was a chance to negotiate away the North’s nascent nuclear program may be impossible to know. But virtually no one believes the Kim regime is willing to eliminate existing weapons developed at high cost.

So what to do?

  1. Recognize that not every problem is America’s problem. North Korea matters a lot more to its neighbors than to the U.S. Indeed, Pyongyang wouldn’t be constantly tossing imprecations and threats toward Washington, if the U.S. didn’t have troops on its border and abundant air and naval forces pointed the DPRK’s way.
  2. Withdraw American conventional forces from the peninsula. The Republic of Korea, with twice the population and upwards of 40 times the economic strength, of the North, is well able to provide for its own defense. U.S. troops act as nuclear hostages, unnecessarily put in harm’s way without constraining North Korean nuclear activities.
  3. Seek to persuade Beijing to pressure the North out of the former’s own interest. Washington’s only chance of enlisting China’s help is by addressing its concerns—impact of potentially violent implosion spurring conflict and refugees across the Yalu, loss of economically advantageous position in the North, creation of united Korea allied with America aiding Washington efforts at containment. This requires negotiating with the PRC.
  4. Offer to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea. Engagement might not change anything, but then, we can be certain that nothing will change if we maintain the same policy toward the North.
  5. Indicate that continuing expansion of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal would force Washington to reconsider its position on proliferation. After all, the U.S. does not want to be left extending a nuclear umbrella over South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and who knows else against nuclear-armed North Korea, China, and Russia. Better to extricate America from such a miasma and allow its allies to create their own nuclear deterrents. If that prospect bothers the PRC, then it should do more to prevent the DPRK from continuing its present course.

North Korea has become a seemingly insoluble problem for Washington. Nothing the U.S. can do, at least at reasonable cost, is likely to create a democratic, friendly, non-nuclear DPRK.

But as I point out on National Interest: “Washington can share the nightmare, turning South Korea’s defense over to Seoul and nuclear proliferation over to the North’s neighbors, particularly China. Moreover, Washington can diminish North Korean fear and hostility by establishing diplomatic ties, just as America had official relations with the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies during the Cold War.”

The geopolitics still would be messy. But no longer would it be America’s responsibility to clean up.