North Korea is likely to be one of the worst headaches, or maybe nightmares, for the next president. He or she “must find a way to neuter Mr. Kim’s outlandish and frightening peril,” intoned the Washington Post.
Of course, four successive presidents have sought to do so. Yet, nothing they tried worked. Experience suggests that “neutering” Pyongyang is beyond the power of the U.S. president, at least at a cost Americans are willing to bear.
The United States should try a different approach. Washington should withdraw from the Korean vortex. Then the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would be primarily a problem for its neighbors, who have the most at stake.
Washington’s military presence is an anachronism. Today the Republic of Korea outmatches the DPRK on every measure of national power save military, and the latter deficiency is a matter of choice.
With twice the population and around 40 times the GDP, South Korea could do whatever is necessary to deter and defeat its northern antagonist. Seoul doesn’t do so because America continues to spend the resources and risk the lives of its citizens on the ROK’s behalf.
That made sense during the Cold War, but no longer. The United States is militarily stretched, economically embattled, and fiscally endangered. It no longer can afford to subsidize the defense of prosperous and populous friends.
Absent its military commitment to the ROK, America would of no concern to the latest Kim scion to rule over the impoverished land to the north. For instance, Kim Jong-un was recently quoted expressing his “great satisfaction” with the test of the mid-range Mudusan missile. As a result, he explained, “We have the sure capability to attack in an overall and practical way the Americans in the Pacific.”
Even more dramatic have been tests, most recently in April, on a long-range missile capable of hitting North America. It is useful only for threatening the United States.
At the same time, the DPRK is thought to be continuing to expand its nuclear capabilities. The Institute for Science and International Security recently estimated North Korea’s arsenal at 13 to 21 weapons. It may be adding four to six weapons a year.
North Korea’s threats do not occur in a vacuum. Pyongyang is targeting America with weapons as well as rhetoric because America is over there, threatening his nation with war. In contrast, Kim does not spend his time denouncing Mexico or threatening to turn Toronto into a lake of fire.
This doesn’t mean Kim is a victim or innocent, of course. Nevertheless, in this case, he is behaving rationally.
The United States, which enjoys an overwhelming military advantage and imposes regime change whenever convenient, does threaten his rule. Washington’s attack on Moammar Khadafy’s regime, which had negotiated away its missile and nuclear programs, demonstrated that American officials cannot be trusted. A nuclear deterrent is the most obvious and perhaps the only sure defense.
This raises the obvious question whether Pyongyang would behave so provocatively if America was not on the scene. No one should expect a kinder, gentler Kim to emerge.
But his “byungjin” policy of pursuing both nuclear weapons and economic growth faces a severe challenge. As I contend in National Interest online: “With the U.S. far away he would have more reason to listen to China, which long has advised more reforms and fewer nukes. Since nothing else has worked, an American withdrawal would be a useful change in strategy.”
The justification for U.S. troops in Korea disappeared decades ago. Bringing them home and shrinking America’s military accordingly would ease an increasingly unaffordable defense burden.
Moreover, getting out of Korea would undercut Pyongyang’s justification for its overwhelming military spending. It’s rare to find such a win-win policy for the Korean peninsula.