North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un hasn’t been seen in public in more than two weeks, which has set off speculation that he is gravely ill, or even dead.
Beyond Kim’s inner circle, no one knows for sure whether North Korea’s ruler is at death’s doorstep or alive and well. But the sudden focus on North Korea is a reminder that, even during a pandemic, events are in the saddle. Americans may be focusing on their domestic health crisis, but the regime in Pyongyang — psychotic, totalitarian, and very heavily armed — is as dangerous as ever.
For decades, US presidents have tried to reason, scold, or bribe Pyongyang into desisting from its drive to amass a nuclear arsenal. All the while, the Kim regime has moved steadily closer to its ultimate goal: domination of the Korean peninsula and the ability to threaten the United States.
Its progress hasn’t been halted by the coronavirus. Two weeks ago, North Korea fired a barrage of cruise missiles from both ground-based launchers and fighter jets. Three times last month, it fired a series of short-range ballistic missiles — and when members of the UN Security Council condemned the launches, the North Korean Foreign Ministry snarled that they should expect “yet another momentous reaction.”
The Trump administration has blown hot and cold on Kim and his regime. The president has threatened to respond to any North Korean attack with “fire and fury” and “total destruction” — but has also engaged directly with Kim in three unprecedented summit meetings. Neither approach has reduced by an iota the menace posed by Pyongyang’s ruling dynasty. Like his predecessors, Trump has pursued a policy of North Korean denuclearization; like them, he has made clear that he is not seeking regime change. But you can’t have one without the other.
“If I weren’t president, you would have been in war with Korea,” the president told reporters on Monday with his usual rodomontade. Yet even taken at face value, what kind of peace can exist as long as the fanatical rulers of Pyongyang remain in control? It is “a dictator’s peace of fear and intimidation . . . of mutually assured destruction and continued oppression of the North Korean people,” writes Ben Forney, a researcher at South Korea’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “If real peace is the goal, the Kim regime has got to go.”
Just so. How can the United States endorse as legitimate a regime that has sent millions of its subjects to early graves? That imprisons hundreds of thousands of men, women, and even children in hellish slave labor camps? That exports weapons of mass destruction? That assassinates its opponents on foreign soil?
US diplomacy shouldn’t be focused on the unattainable goal of getting the Kim regime to give up its arms. It should be aimed at ending the regime that makes those arms such a threat to the region and the world.
The United States and its allies ought to be doing everything possible to foment internal opposition to Pyongyang’s gangster-ocracy. North Koreans should be flooded with outside information about their rulers’ crimes and encouraged to rise in rebellion. Word should be conveyed to dissidents within the country’s military elite that a successful coup leading North Korea away from bristling belligerence will be supported and recognized by the free world. Maximum attention should be drawn to Pyongyang’s ghastly human rights record in international forums, and the cause of liberty for North Korea’s people vigorously promoted.
The United States should aggressively deploy the powerful economic sanction tools at its command — including those in the Otto Warmbier Act, passed by Congress last year — to sever the Kim regime from the financial inflows from abroad on which it depends for survival. It could help organize a North Korean government-in-exile, comprising former residents from the North who successfully escaped or defected.
What America and the West should not do is what they’ve been doing for decades: kicking the North Korean can down the road, lurching from crisis to crisis, hoping that some combination of rewards and rebukes will keep the regime from doing anything rash. That policy has kept the Kim dynasty in command, North Korea’s people in chains, and the threat of war gradually rising. The only way to change that threat is to change the regime — before it’s too late.