Reconsider possible strategies for US-North Korea relations
When a CBS news journalist questioned U.S. Secretary of State James Mattis on a possible war with North Korea, Mattis’ austere and perturbed response was that this war would probably be “the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes,” according to a May 28 CBS article.
It’s possible that the U.S. would defeat North Korea in any hypothetical war, but at what costs? Considering the past and current wars in which the U.S. has been directly or indirectly involved, such as the Iran-Iraq War, the Bosnian War, the war in Afghanistan or the Syrian Civil War, Mattis’ statements should not be taken lightly. High death counts, chemical weapons, indiscriminate cluster bombings and countless human rights violations are all aspects of these wars; nonetheless, a worse conflict could happen in the not-so-distant future.
To understand the current North Korean crisis, one needs to understand why the North Korean regime sees the U.S. as adversaries. More importantly, one needs to understand the recent events that led the supreme leader of North Korea, 33-year-old Kim Jong-un, to conclude that the use of nuclear weapons is the way to stay in power. In the Korean Conflict of the early 1950’s, North Korea, with the support of its communist allies in China and the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea. The U.S. and several other of its NATO allies later interfered the war, which claimed over two million casualties, half of whom were North Korean military and civilians, according to a June 10 CNN article.
After the war, the country became divided along the 38th parallel and over six decades later more than 37,500 U.S. troops remain there, according to an April 15 NBC News article. There have been numerous border incidents since then none of which have deteriorated into nationwide conflict. However, the situation remains unremittingly strained, and it seems that every now and then the North Korean supreme leader decides to conduct another nuclear or missile strike, the latest of which was conducted a few days ago, according to a Sept. 3 CNN article. The question that comes to mind is why the North Korean leader feels that he needs to conduct all of these tests when the two superpowers, the U.S. and Russia, haven’t conducted one since the early 1990s, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. According to a July 10 CNBC article, analysts believe that Kim’s nuclear weapons serve as an insurance policy to keep him in power given the relatively recent usurpations of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein: two dictators who were taken down and killed with the help of Western intervention. Neither leader had nuclear weapons when they fell from power. Gaddafi agreed to give up his arsenal for economic relief in 2003. As for Saddam Hussein, rigorous searches following the invasion of Iraq repudiated former President Bush’s vehement assertions about alleged “stockpiles”.
Now, how can the U.S. and its allies attempt to de-escalate this crisis? Several U.S. presidents claimed to be able to solve and allay tensions between the U.S and North Korea but all previous efforts have been futile. North Korea is still one of the most isolated and sanctioned sovereignties in the world and the current regime has been unremitting in conducting its military drills. Economic sanctions should continue to be implemented, but they will not hamper North Korea’s yearning to develop its nuclear weapons program. Furthermore, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, 76.3 percent of North Korea’s exports go to China, a non-NATO member who has essentially flouted American calls to cut ties to the quarantined nations and even argued for removing current sanctions, according to an Aug. 23 Washington Post article. Russia has also refused to cut its ties with North Korea. A preemptive military strike is too perilous given that tens of millions of South Koreans as well as tens of thousands of American troops would be facile targets given that the metropolitan city of Seoul lies only 35 miles south of the border. To make matters worse, China, which has the world’s largest army and the second largest military expenditures in the world according to Forbes, claimed that it would prevent the U.S. from interfering with the Kim Regime — should the U.S. attack North Korea first — according to an Aug. 10 Reuters piece. It has also vowed to stay neutral in the event North Korea strikes the U.S. Recent attempts from the U.S. to conduct military exercises with its Japanese and South Korean counterparts have only seemed to provoke the crises because North Korea has recently accentuated the crisis following these joint drills, according to an Aug. 26 CNN article. The only alternative left is for the U.S. to try to establish a positive relation with North Korea by offering economic sanctions reliefs in return for peace talks. This may seem counterproductive and appear as another way for the regime to fund their nuclear program; however, this path may be promising. According to a Dec. 29 2015 Wall Street Journal piece, North Korea’s economy is very poor. Its dilapidated countryside coupled with its starving people make it undoubtable that they covet economic relief. Continuing with the status quo, which is just constant talks about military tactics and the nuclear weapons issue, will not be helpful to their economy and therefore will not help the crisis. The biggest incentive for a country which has one of the lowest GDP per capita rates in the world, according to the CIA, is sanctions relief. The West should slowly and periodically try relieving economic sanctions and stipulate that the extra funds should be used to help the struggling nation feed its people and restructure its health care program. In return, under the agreement, the isolated nation would agree to cut back its nuclear weapons program and start negotiations, per restrictions created by the International Monetary Fund. Given that we have tried and contemplated an eccentric range of political, economic, military and psychological options such as U.N. Resolutions, economic sanctions, military drills and propaganda threats by loudspeakers across the Korean Demilitarized Zone, we should try something new. Whether or not the regime will acquiesce to the world’s demands to disarm is up for speculation. However, if we try this approach and North Korea still remains disruptive to the international community, it is more likely that China and North Korea will begin to gradually move away and completely isolate the regime, forcing it to comply. As the days, weeks and months go by, the notion of direct military conflict is not going away. The U.S. should try a novel tactic to deal with this reclusive country given that decades of all other tactics have failed.