How the next President can confront the North Korean threat

Just over two years ago, I wrote about the conflict between Americans’ apparent impulse for a more passive foreign policy and their strong disapproval of what that policy looks like in practice. In other words, Americans’ views on foreign policy are seldom as simplistic as they seem to be. Strong majorities favored going into Iraq and Afghanistan, strong majorities wanted out of both by 2008, and by 2016, strong majorities disfavor the policies of those who would allow them to dissolve into chaos or terrorist domination. What Americans support in the abstract isn’t necessarily what they support once its concrete consequences become clear. Furthermore, polls that ask broad, loaded questions about America “minding its own business” don’t test Americans’ specific views about Iran sanctions, arming the Ukrainians, helping Japan and Taiwan build up their forces, or applying a contain-constrict-collapse policy toward North Korea.

Is there some way to satisfy these two seemingly contradictory views that the voters hold? After all, sending ground forces overseas isn’t the only way to influence events there. Of course, there are times when foreign enemies pose a direct threat to the United States, and other alternatives aren’t sufficient to suppress those threats. We all agree that this was true of Afghanistan in 2001. I’m not sure why that’s less true today, but that issue can be debated in other places. My point here is that there are a number of underused strategies that can deter aggression effectively without the direct use of force. Some of them may even sound like the “smart power” that Barack Obama promised us as a candidate.

I. Hub-Blocking Strategies

One set of tools with great promise are what I call hub-blocking strategies, which leverage America’s position as a hub of global commerce. A tool I’ve spent a great deal of time talking about here is financial sanctions, because it’s a tool that has worked against North Korea. Another is international trade. The size of our economy and our favorable geography mean that foreign companies, countries, shippers, and ports need access to our ports. Actors that routinely fail to inspect cargo for illicit shipments, or to enforce inspection requirements imposed by U.N. Security Council resolutions, should face enhanced inspection requirements when their cargo, or cargo originating from those places, lands here. The threat of having their merchandise tied up in customs is enough to put shippers out of business, and to drive traffic away from blacklisted ports. The worst actors may be denied access to our ports and markets entirely, or face the seizure and forfeiture of their goods, ships, and aircraft.

Recently, South Korea has shown us how good alliances can magnify this economic power, by proposing a secondary trade boycott against companies doing business with North Korea. If the United States, Japan, and other allies joined this secondary boycott as an ad hoc alliance, that strategy could be a powerful disincentive to trade with North Korea.

Often, the greatest limitation on sanctioning North Korea’s trading partners is understanding who those partners are. In some cases, multinational corporations may not even know that they’re sourcing materials from North Korea. Laws like Dodd-Frank have been a step forward in tracing these supply chains, but good research by activists can do more to expose North Korean-sourced materials to public criticism and shareholder protests.

Had the United States not damaged its brand so badly with its overbroad electronic surveillance, information technology could have (and still might) become another such hub. Who, after all, supposes that Russia, China, and other countries don’t monitor electronic communications secretly, and beyond the limits of their permissive laws? Necessary reforms to surveillance here could do much to restore our status as a hub of free communication. At the same time, Europe is coming to the conclusion that it cannot continue to take an absolutist view of internet privacy when its cities are under attack by terrorists. In the end, the United States has much to gain by becoming a trusted hub of global communications. To win that trust, its laws must impose transparency and restraint on the surveillance state.

Obviously, any of these options can be pushed to the point that it does our interests more harm than good. Just as military excesses cost us allies abroad and domestic unity at home, the Snowden case also illustrates the dangers of overextending our power over electronic communications. Over-inclusive surveillance could drive Google to put its servers (literally) off-shore. If financial sanctions are overused, they could drive commerce out of the dollar system. Excessive use of trade sanctions will sap our own economic power. This brings us to the unsatisfying answer that we must balance the interests of security and freedom of commerce, which sometimes compete with each other.

II. Progressive Diplomacy

Good diplomacy and ad hoc coalitions are essential to hub-blocking strategies. If nations that share common interests in a peaceful international order put similar restrictions on bad actors, coalitions gain the power to block more hubs and deprive those hubs of any other places to go. Ad hoc coalitions like the Proliferation Security Initiative can be extremely useful in arresting the movement of dangerous people and cargo. The Global Financial Action Task Force has been just as useful at denying bad actors the use of the financial system for money laundering and proliferation. Similar coalitions could emerge to deny money, arms, and visas to persons and regimes that engage in aggression against their neighbors or their own people. I can foresee a day, not far in the future, when the practical value of these ad hoc coalitions (along with old and new military coalitions) eclipse the U.N., which will never be a force for peace as long as China and Russia hold the veto in the Security Council.

North Korea is a good illustration of how diplomacy fails when it’s done in the wrong sequence. Until very recently, we’ve approached North Korea directly, even before achieving consensus with our allies on achieving their interests, and that has not only allowed North Korea to employ a divide-and-conquer strategy against us, it has allowed Pyongyang to negotiate from the position of greatest possible strength, without an effective coalition allied against it. In other cases, we have deferred to the erratic domestic politics of South Korea.

But by going to North Korea first, we not only dealt from a weaker position, we forgot a fundamental rule of diplomacy — it only works when all the parties have a basic willingness to make the same deal. In the case of North Korea, we deceived ourselves into believing in North Korea’s willingness to disarm because North Korea occasionally vocalized one. North Korea wanted nukes all along, of course. Now, there are calls for a round of diplomacy that would give North Korea valuable security guarantees and regime-sustaining aid despite this belated recognition.

This is not to say that there is no place for diplomacy with North Korea, only that engaging in it now would be hopelessly premature and naive. Diplomacy will only work after North Korea decides that it’s more dangerous to keep its nukes than to give them up, and that will require us to pressure it to the edge of extinction. We don’t have the leverage for that today. Gaining it will require a combination of crippling financial isolation and domestic subversion. The threat of those things will cause alarm in Beijing, but if we show a willingness to use them anyway, China will also pressure North Korea to disarm rather than see another Syria erupt on its border.

III. Liberation is best left to the liberated

As a nation, we seem to have forgotten that when only force can deter or reverse aggression, it is not always wisest for America to intervene directly. We have become too restrained in supporting political resistance movements against regimes opposed to both our interests and that of their own people. Such support should be offered only to movements that agree to abide by the laws of armed conflict, share a common core of our values, would support some important U.S. interests, and could (with a reasonable amount of material assistance) restore a better and more liberal order than the existing one. Once given, such support should only be withdrawn when we can be certain that a cease-fire and a diplomatic resolution can be verified, and will protect those who have sided with us from the state’s retribution.

The most obvious examples of failure here are our passivity in Syria, and during the Green Revolution in Iran. Had we imposed and enforced the kind of tough sanctions then that forced Iran back to the bargaining table later, and had we been more vocal in supporting the opposition, Iran might not have been found the resources to crush it. Had we been more aggressive about financing and advising the opposition, and about supporting its communications strategy with broadcasting and other information operations, it could have withstood the crackdown long enough for sanctions to work.

Today, it is difficult to recall that the Syrian opposition was initially non-violent, and that when it finally took up arms, it was predominantly secular. At the right moment, a shipment of antitank rockets and light antiaircraft guns might have allowed a better government to seize control in Syria. The price of our non-interventionist policy there speaks for itself today. I suspect we’ll be paying that price for decades.

Of course, these aren’t strategies that can be switched on at a moment’s notice. They rest on a foundation of outreach toward and diplomacy with opposition leaders, long-term support for their organizations, and long-term cultivation of the relations that will be necessary to help them govern in a post-revolutionary environment. (That is, the very things we should be doing to cultivate a broad-based North Korean opposition today.) Any opposition movement derives the popular support it needs to survive from its perceived capacity to govern, and to provide for the population’s needs.

To be clear, I do not necessarily refer here to support for armed resistance — something that is both completely hypothetical and increasingly plausible today, and which tends to break out suddenly and unexpectedly in highly repressive states. For now, the U.S. and South Korea should agree to cooperate on a non-violent strategy of information operations, and quietly build a political infrastructure that could either become the foundation for a civil society in a reunified Korea, or a resistance movement that would drain the state’s resources and contest its control over North Korea’s vast, mountainous, and nearly roadless interior.

The initial objectives of our engagement strategy should be to inform the North Korean people about different systems of government, their own prospects and aspirations in the event of reunification, and how to respond to different contingencies. It should facilitate the economic empowerment of low-songbun citizens through private agriculture and light industry, occupational training, commerce, and finance, all of which will break their dependence on the state and allow them to bribe their way out of their subjugation. It should cause defense planners in Beijing to hesitate to intervene in North Korea if the potential exists for an organized resistance movement to drain their government’s domestic political support. Creating this infrastructure requires us to give North Koreans the means to communicate freely with each other, and to organize the informal people-to-people networks that will eventually evolve into a political opposition movement. Fortunately, the day when technology breaks the last barriers to freedom of information seems increasingly inevitable.

IV. Deterrence & Buying Time

Unfortunately, it’s no longer clear whether there is enough time for this strategy to work. While the Obama administration’s North Korea policy drifted for eight years, North Korea made rapid progress toward an effective nuclear arsenal. Even if pursued with equal determination, a strategy of hub-blocking, progressive diplomacy, and political subversion could take anywhere from one to five years to threaten the survival of the regime in Pyongyang, and make effective diplomacy possible.

The risky — and until now, unsustainably risky — option of limited strikes against North Korea’s WMD facilities may now be necessary to buy enough time for non-violent (or less violent) strategies to work. At a minimum, it should now be the declared policy of the United States, Japan, and South Korea that they reserve the right to intercept all North Korean missile launches. As dangerously risky as that sounds, I maintain that putting North Korea on a path to the domination of South Korea, unrestricted global nuclear proliferation and cyberwarfare, and a direct North Korean nuclear threat to the United States are all much more dangerous.


  1. Good points, and it makes sense to have the global community say “if you launch another missile we will shoot it out of the sky”…probably good to get some data from the missile shield hardware to see if it actually works in practice as well.