By Jamie Metzl
The escalating verbal exchange between the erratic, unpredictable and verbally excessive North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and the erratic, unpredictable and verbally excessive US President Donald Trump is bringing the Korean peninsula deeper into a crisis the Trump administration appears to have no real strategy to solve.
On Monday, Trump warned North Korea against making any more threats, saying it will “face fire and fury like the world has never seen.” In response, North Korea’s state-run media said the country is considering plans to strike around Guam.
But if the Trump administration wants to effectively mitigate the North Korean threat, they will need to understand 12 key points:
1. North Korea’s leaders are racing to develop deliverable nuclear weapons as quickly as possible because they believe these weapons are the most effective and cost-efficient way to ensure their survival and enhance their leverage with other countries.
From their perspective, nuclear weapons prevent bullying by other countries, provide insurance against the types of foreign intervention faced by Libya and Ukraine after giving up their nuclear weapons, enhance their own leadership prestige, and increase the cost of a potential coup d’état. Achieving these goals through conventional military means would cost far more than the destitute nation could ever afford.
2. Because North Korea’s leaders are ideologically dependent on maintaining a hyper-paranoid state of war, feel they will be safer with nuclear weapons than without them, and have a long and consistent history of non-compliance with arms reduction agreements they have signed, no amount of cajoling or engagement is likely to convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. The only way North Korea will give up its weapons is if its leaders come to believe the cost of maintaining nuclear weapons is greater than the cost of giving them up.
3. Other than a change of leadership within North Korea or an extremely improbable and almost certainly ineffective and counter-productive US military strike, the only likely means of driving this perceptual change among North Korea’s leaders would be by ratcheting up sanctions and other non-military coercive measures to the point of undermining their grip on power in the absence of denuclearization.
4. Although the sanctions on North Korea announcedSaturday build on previous rounds of sanctions, they will almost certainly not convince North Korea to change course in any meaningful way. The sanctions may well pinch, but North Korea’s brutal leaders have shown that they are willing to let hundreds of thousands of their citizens starve to death rather than make strategic concessions.
The only way sanctions could potentially lead North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons would be if China credibly expressed its willingness to shut off North Korea’s trade and oil lifeline in the absence of denuclearization — something China is far from willing to do for its own strategic reasons.
5. North Korea provides China a buffer between itself and US-allied South Korea, a tool for preventing the reunification of the Korean peninsula, and a cheap source of natural resources and labor. In exchange, China provides nearly all of its crude oil and most of the food going to its military, services cash transfers to Pyongyang via Chinese financial institutions and keeps the North Korean economy afloat via trade and access to Chinese markets. Without this support and China’s protection in watering down UN sanctions and other forms of international pressure, North Korea would likely collapse in short order.
6. But Beijing’s support for Pyongyang comes at a growing cost. North Korea is increasingly hostile to China and its nuclear weapons program undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which China supports. China’s relationship with North Korea makes Beijing complicit in the “crime against humanity” currently underway in North Korea, and its instability and technological unevenness create the possibility of a future nuclear accident that would contaminate northeast China.
North Korean belligerence also justifies the strong US presence in South Korea, the strengthening of missile-defense capabilities in South Korea and Japan that undermine China’s nuclear deterrent, the eventual revision of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution which outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes and underpins Japan’s postwar pacifism, and increases the likelihood of a nuclear arms race in Asia. All of this harms Beijing’s interests more than those of any other country.
7. Chinese policymakers may want North Korea to follow China’s example and reform from within, but North Korea’s leaders, even with their economy in ruins, will not be able to make sufficient economic reforms in the absence of political reforms that would undermine the foundation of the country’s totalitarian structure.
Meaningful economic growth would require a level of market information and worker empowerment that is simply incompatible with North Korea’s brutal system of control, but easing up that control would eventually break the dominance of North Korea’s leaders and their Workers’ Party. Given the massive numbers of North Koreans who have been murdered, starved, and imprisoned by the current regime, it is hard to imagine many of North Korea’s top leaders surviving a transition to a more open society.
8. For these reasons, Chinese leaders face a binary choice. If China believes it is better off with a nuclear armed and hostile North Korea on its border, it can continue on its current path of expressing displeasure and supporting some sanctions but not placing sufficient pressure on North Korea to alter Pyongyang’s strategic calculus and actions. If China believes it cannot live with a nuclear armed and hostile North Korea, Beijing must do what it takes to force the North Korean leadership to either give up their nuclear weapons or face regime destabilization and collapse.
9. Continuing along the current path will give Pyongyang ever more leverage over Beijing and an increasing ability to force China to maintain or increase levels of material and political support no matter how much damage North Korea might be doing to China’s broader strategic interests. This approach will also invite the United States, South Korea and Japan to more fully realize that the best and perhaps only way to influence North Korea’s behavior will be by increasing the costs imposed on China for its tacit endorsement of the status quo.
10. Alternately, China could decide that it is willing to push for change by giving Pyongyang a choice between denuclearization and a cutoff of China’s economic and trade lifeline. This would be a big risk for Beijing, but the rewards could be huge.
11. If China could convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, China would emerge as a responsible power player in the region and undermine US and allied efforts to counter the North Korean nuclear threat.
If North Korea was unwilling to give up its nuclear weapons and China turned up the pressure to the point that threatened North Korea’s leaders’ grip on power, China could also play the leading role in managing a Korean reunification process that could expressly protect China’s national interests.
This might include making sure US forces would not go North of the 38th parallel and even potentially stationing Chinese troops in northern Korea for some period of time under a UN mandate. Korean reunification would enhance China’s trade relations with Korea, open a high-tech corridor from southern Korea to northeast China, eliminate the threat of nuclear proliferation, reduce the justification for the maintenance of US forces in Korea at current levels, and put China in a great position to positively assist in the transitional process. This would lead to generations of good will and mutually beneficial collaboration.
12. Because China has traditionally seen North Korea through the prism of its broader strategic rivalry with the United States, however, some level of strategic trust between Beijing and Washington would be required to make this type of transition possible. Given the highly erratic behavior, strategic incongruity, and general unreliability of the US administration, reaching this level of strategic trust in the present context would be a tall order.
The bottom line is that while the continued evolution of sanctions places more pressure on Pyongyang, these sanctions will not work as long as China is unwilling to push far harder and risk far more for denuclearization. While the US can and should continue to increase the costs to both China and North Korea of the status quo, real change will only happen when China changes its policy based on its own perceived strategic interests or when the North Korean regime finally collapses under its own weight, which could take years.
Because both of these possibilities remain unlikely in the short-term, the US will likely back into a policy of containing North Korea similar to how the US contained for many years a nuclear armed Soviet Union. This type of relationship could eventually become relatively stable because North Korean leaders would be very cautious about launching a nuclear weapon that would certainly lead to their country’s annihilation.
But while the North Korean leader’s verbal bellicosity has already been factored into the system, the same attributes are far more destabilizing when they come from the President of the United States — and the possibility of miscalculation by one side or the other is increasing by the day.
Jamie Metzl is a Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, novelist, blogger, syndicated columnist, media commentator, and expert in Asian affairs and biotechnology policy.
To request Jamie Metzl to speak at your next event, contact:
Robinson Speakers | The Gold Standard For Keynote Speakers
646-504-9849 | firstname.lastname@example.org