There has been a complete lack of creative thinking in Washington about how to deal with the threats and posturing of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator Both he and his father, the former leader, have a long history of issuing menacing statements, rattling their sabers and vowing war and destruction on the United States, Japan and South Korea.
In part, this serves to make the North Korean people (millions of whom have died of famine, disease and imprisonment under the Kim family’s leadership for three generations) subservient and willing to unite against the outside world. In part, the Kims have learned that this crazy looking behavior unnerves the conventionally thinking politicians who run Western-style democracies. They see Kim Jong Un as actually crazy, irrational and as ready to go to war in an instant if he is thwarted in his demands.
Since the end of the Korean War in 1953 the Kims and North Korea have threatened to overrun South Korea. Seoul, the capital of the South, is only 35 miles from the border and within easy reach of the North’s artillery and missiles. Yet, despite a long history of threats, provocative actions and minor confrontations, North Korea has not attacked South Korea or any other country. And they have learned that acting rabid has worked for them – often producing concessions and financial and other inducements from their “enemies” to get them to back off from their threats.
Since its first successful atomic bomb test in 2009 the North Koreans have focused on producing nuclear weapons and, more recently, on missiles that could deliver a nuclear warhead. It appears that now they have almost reached the stage where they have the capacity to launch a long range ballistic missile that could strike the western coast of the United States. Their intermediate range missiles could strike Japan.
The United Nations has responded to these recent alarming developments by increasing sanctions. President Trump has responded by threatening “fire and fury” such as the world has never seen if Kim continues missile development or nuclear tests.
We have once again reached the kind of stalemate that has become familiar. Sanctions seem to have no impact on the North Korean government. They ignore the pleas for moderation from China (their biggest trade partner and sometime ally). The South Koreans are in a panic because they fear the death of millions that would take place if war breaks out and Kim Jong Un uses nuclear weapons. The United States government grinds its teeth in frustration – with no good outcome or easy solution available.
It is time for a different approach. For over 60 years the USA and its allies have tried to subdue North Korea by encircling it with military and naval power, by imposing sanctions and embargoes, and by trying to isolate it from the outside world through alliances and international organizations. It has not worked. These strategies come from the minds of military and political leaders who imagine that force and overpowering weaponry will compel the North Koreans to capitulate.
It is the same old strategy that failed to bring the Cuban government to its knees since their revolution in 1959, and failed to bring down the Iranian regime since their revolution in 1979.
The time has come for non-violent and non-traditional solutions. Some of the elements of this approach would be:
- A joint declaration by the United States, Japan and South Korea that they will not attack North Korea or try to change its form of government or leadership.
- An offer to gradually rescind sanctions over a period of several years, contingent on the North Koreans stopping missile development and tests, and subject to regular verification and inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. These procedures (negotiated by the Obama administration) have worked well with the Iranian government to stop their development of nuclear capability. They are a good model for North Korea.
- An undertaking by the United States to withdraw all forces from South Korea in 10 years if the North Koreans respect the weapons ban and the inspection procedures for that period.
- Opening diplomatic relations between the two countries so that each has an embassy in the other state.
- Agreeing to a limited amount of trade that can be increased if good relations persist. This type of economic agreement has also been very effective in persuading Iran to keep to its promise to stop developing nuclear weapons.
- Face to face talks between the leaders of the two Koreas, Japan, the United States, China and Russia. Jaw-Jaw is always better than war-war, as a wise Englishman once said.
- Creating a special direct aid fund. North Korea is desperately poor. Its population is 24 million. In 2006 its per capita income was $1,108. If the United States, South Korea and Japan create a fund that would provide $100 per year to each North Korean citizen, it would cost only $2.4 billion annually. This would provide a huge boost to the well-being of the Koreans and to their economy, and would show them that the outside world wants to help, not destroy, them. Better still, this fund would be a tiny fraction of the money now spent on maintaining U.S. military bases and weaponry.
It’s time to be more creative in dealing with North Korea, and it’s past time for non-violent, non-military strategies to be given a chance.