Since North Korea’s sixth* nuclear test, I’ve already read several analyses concluding that North Korea now has the bomb for good, and that we might as well give up on denuclearization — as if Pyongyang’s acquisition of a nuclear arsenal ends with us all living happily ever after together. You can only believe that if you either haven’t read much North Korean propaganda — or choose to ignore it, just as much of Europe ignored the words Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf in the 30s. But what North Korea wants is South Korea. It has always wanted South Korea, and it has never stopped saying that it wants South Korea. Its messianic vision of reunification has always rested on its express promise of reuniting Korea under its rule. You can try to pretend that away, but North Korea won’t be content to sit behind its borders and watch its legitimacy eroded away by unfavorable comparison — made vivid by every smuggled DVD of a South Korean TV drama — to a superior model of Korean nationhood.
Why do we refuse to believe Pyongyang when it makes its intentions so manifest? Because it couldn’t conquer and occupy the South by conventional war? Do we assume that Pyongyang’s plans haven’t evolved since 1953? I assure you — its current plans are much more rational and attainable than that.
In the meantime, Pyongyang needs cash, and it will sell any weapon to any buyer to get it. And it will threaten or murder any critic, foreign or domestic, whose words undermine the integrity of its propaganda, until in some small way, we are all subject to Pyongyang’s global censorship. Not even the U.S. Ambassador, or a Hollywood film studio, is off limits to its goon squads. Accepting a nuclear North Korea doesn’t mean this crisis is over. It means we’ve entered Korean War II in earnest. Korean War II is a war of skirmishes in which Pyongyang will seek to incrementally terrorize South Korea into submission and the U.S. into disengagement. It will mean a new period of accelerating crises and outrages that will almost inevitably lead to miscalculation and war. We cannot live with a nuclear North Korea.
The geniuses who’ve spent the last 30 years misjudging Pyongyang and counseling us to appease it are soon to fill your TV screens and op-ed pages. They would sit this episode out if they had any shame at all, and you will tune them out if you’re more sensible than they are. Which, statistically speaking, you probably are.
There is much overlap between these advocates of appeasement and those who once said, in no particular order, that (1) North Korea only wanted nuclear reactors to generate electricity, (2) that if we cut a deal, it would keep its word, (3) Kim Jong-Un would be the reformer we’ve all been waiting for, (4) Pyongyang only wants nukes for defense, and (5) that years of tough sanctions — sanctions that almost none of these critics had read or knew the first thing about — haven’t worked. They now call for a deal, in the hope that you haven’t noticed how Pyongyang has insisted, again and again, that it will never give up its nukes. What, do they suppose, are we supposed to negotiate except this year’s price of extortion? We can neither talk, nor bomb, nor wait out way out of this crisis.
Clearly, sanctions haven’t worked yet, if you define “work” to mean disarm or topple Kim Jong-Un. Whether they’re beginning to work remains to be seen. It’s a lazy argument that equates coincidence with causation for polemic convenience. One could have made it after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, when financial sanctions (as we know now) clearly had put Pyongyang under withering pressure and eventually forced it to return to talks (where we exchanged real concessions, including the lifting of sanctions, for false promises to disarm). There are some early signs that sanctions are beginning to fray the system’s financial and political cohesion, but as I’ve said all along, it will take two to three years for them to begin to show their effects, and it’s too early to call this evidence compelling.
If you remember nothing else about our sanctions against North Korea, remember these points. First, as a practical matter, and until early 2016, the U.S. had stronger sanctions in place against Zimbabwe than against North Korea. Our North Korea sanctions were among our weakest sanctions programs, out of deference to Beijing, which consistently cheated on U.N. sanctions, to the point of selling Pyongyang the trucks that carry its missiles. Even then, the U.S. only began to enforce the new sanctions authorities Congress gave it in June 2017. It’s time to offer Beijing a sharper choice than it has had to make before. That’s not just a threat of secondary sanctions and trade consequences; it’s also a threat of instability along China’s border. If Pyongyang and Beijing are willing to threaten our security, why should we refrain from doing the same to them?
So does this mean we’re too late? Yes, we’re too late to stop North Korea from having a nuclear arsenal, but not too late to stop it from having a bigger and better one, not too late to undermine Kim Jong-Un’s misrule politically, and not too late to truncate whatever crisis is to come four or five years from now. Our goal now must be to abbreviate, as much as possible, the amount of time we have to try to deter a state that’s increasingly undeterrable by abbreviating the rule of Kim Jong-Un.
Meanwhile, beseech the deity of your choice that the Defense Department is accelerating its development of boost-phase missile defenses; ground-based missile defenses like the Arrow, Iron Dome, and C-Ram systems; and hyper velocity projectiles that will allow conventional 155-millimeter and 5-inch artillery to be integrated into a missile defense network. That’s probably our only option for defending Seoul and Osan Air Base against North Korea’s tube artillery, and its chem/bio-capable 300-millimeter artillery rockets. Those systems may give us a partial sense of security a few years from now, at great cost, but the only way we’ll ever have lasting security from Kim Jong-Un’s threats is the end of his misrule. That change — the change that we need, and that the North Korean people need even more desperately than we do — must come from within.
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Previously said “seventh.” Since corrected, thanks to a reader.