North Korea is the world’s most secretive country — and the strangest. Starvation is rampant; torture and execution commonplace, inflicted by a single family that perpetuates a cult of personality. Its leader, Kim Jong Un, displays the lethal paranoia of dictators: he has murdered numerous top officials and family members, most recently his half-brother, dispatched at a Malaysian airport as a public warning. And his nuclear arsenal could decimate Japan, South Korea, and, within years, Seattle.
That is its raison d’etre. Kim Jong Un learned from Moammar Khadafy what happens when a despot gives up nuclear weapons. Abroad, as at home, fear guarantees survival — his nuclear warheads proliferate; his testing of ICBMs accelerates. By miscalculation or design, North Korea could unleash nuclear calamity.
Three decades of shifting American strategies — threats, negotiations, sanctions, aid, and isolation — have left us and our allies at nuclear jeopardy. Now President Trump calls for a tougher approach.
The risks of military action are grave. Bombing North Korea’s missile sites might precipitate a war, perhaps nuclear, while unleashing massive radioactivity. Given that its weapons are hidden, a military strike is unlikely to destroy them all. Moreover, North Korean artillery targets the 20 million residents of Seoul, just 30 miles south of the DMZ. Even should we discount these consequences, South Korea will not.
The flip side of war is acquiescence and deterrence. But missile defenses are imperfect, the cost of failure unimaginable. And our tools for cyberwarfare, while considerable, are unlikely to eliminate North Korea’s capabilities, or its potential as a nuclear proliferator.
The middle ground is negotiation. Some suggest pursuing a deal resembling that with Iran, wherein North Korea freezes its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief and guarantees of nonaggression. Others hope for a more permanent solution.
Problems abound. North Korea’s history shows that it cannot be trusted. Prior negotiations have failed. A freeze leaves North Korea’s capacity in place. Chinese support for North Korea has undercut past sanctions efforts. To have any chance of moving Kim Jong Un, a new sanctions regime would require unprecedented cooperation between the United States, China, South Korea, and others to cripple Kim’s regime.
This contravenes history. For decades, China has protected North Korea, fearful that its collapse would eliminate a strategic buffer against South Korea and US forces, creating a unified Korea bristling with American weaponry. Thus it has propped up the erratic Kim Jung Un despite considerable misgivings, refusing to deploy its leverage to curb the nuclear threat.
In response, we have begun deploying the THAAD missile-defense program within South Korea, infuriating a Chinese government that perceives it as a threat to China itself. And the United States has rejected China’s proposal that North Korea freeze its nuclear testing in return for cancelling our annual military exercises with South Korea, a key component of our commitment to its defense.
This is not a promising environment for strategic breakthroughs — a situation complicated by tensions between China and Trump over trade and Chinese expansionism, creating a mosaic of contradictory interests he seems ill-equipped to navigate. In South Korea, new elections may empower leadership wary of confronting China and North Korea — including deployment of THAAD — fortifying Kim Jong Un.
Contemplating this dilemma, I contacted Sue Mi Terry, a former deputy intelligence officr at the National Intelligence Council and a leading expert on national security, China, and the Korean Peninsula.
We cannot subcontract our North Korea policy to China, she cautioned — neither country has credited American resolve. A short-term corrective, albeit contentious, is stepping up sanctions against Chinese institutions that underwrite Kim Jong Un’s survival. We could also shoot down any North Korean missile test that violates UN resolutions, underscoring — without endangering civilians — that we will protect ourselves and our allies.
Beyond that is regime change. There are increasing signs of discord among the elite that Kim relies on to survive, intensified by his summary executions. Stiffer economic sanctions and messaging should target privileged North Koreans, emphasizing that their own prospects for survival and prosperity diminish unless Kim is replaced by the elites themselves, or through American covert options. But the risks include instability, civil war, and confrontation with China.
A peaceful alternative is engaging China over reunifying the Korean Peninsula in exchange for eliminating North Korea’s arsenal. This might involve pledging not to deploy American troops past the 38th parallel, removing THAAD, and persuading China that a unified Korea would be a better trading partner. But this long shot requires skilled diplomacy over time we may not have, until Kim’s arsenal menaces America itself.
Such decisions are why presidents matter.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.