North Korea continues along the nuclear path. A new report warns that Pyongyang could amass a nuclear arsenal as large as 100 weapons by 2020. That would make the North a significant regional power.
Washington has no realistic strategy to deal with North Korea. Some policymakers have advocated offensive military action, but that likely would trigger a war which would devastate South Korea.
The Obama administration’s chief policy has been to reaffirm Washington’s defensive alliance with the South. Some 28,500 U.S. troops are on station, backed by conventional and nuclear forces elsewhere.
However, this only encourages the North’s nuclear development since offensive action is not the program’s purpose. Rather, Pyongyang sees nukes as protection against the allies’ overwhelming military strength, prestige for an otherwise geopolitical nullity, a potent tool of extortion, and a domestic reward for the military.
Some analysts look to more economic sanctions to stop a North Korea bomb. But neither China nor Russia is likely to approve new U.N. penalties. Additional U.S. sanctions alone aren’t likely to cause the North to surrender a program deemed essential to the regime’s international standing and domestic stability.
There also is the increasingly forlorn hope for negotiation. However, voluntary disarmament seems especially unlikely given the critical political role played by the military in Pyongyang.
Some policymakers look to Chinese pressure on the North as a panacea. But Beijing has yet to fully enforce existing sanctions. China is not inclined to take steps that might violently collapse the North Korean state.
The Obama administration should adopt a different approach. Instead of attempting to micro-manage the region, Washington should leave the Korean Peninsula’s future up to the two Koreas and their neighbors.
The world has changed dramatically since the U.S. got involved in 1945. What happens in Pyongyang today is of vastly greater interest to others in the region than America.
Of course, a North Korea deploying nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles theoretically could strike America. However, Pyongyang knows that attacking the U.S. would ensure that North Korea ceased to exist. And the ruling Kims always wanted their virgins in this world, not the next.
While the U.S. retains an interest in a stable Northeast Asia, even more so do the surrounding nations. The best American “leadership” would be to turn responsibility for the peninsula over to neighboring states.
America’s defense guarantee has deformed South Korean policy. Today South Korea enjoys a GDP around 40 times that of the North, population twice as big, and vast technological and international lead. Yet the South has continued to underinvest in its military.
U.S. policy has had a similarly perverse effect on Japan. American military support has left Tokyo as a geopolitical dependent, vulnerable to its potentially aggressive neighbors, both North Korea and China.
Russia’s relations with the North dipped substantially after the end of the Cold War. Ties now are on the rise, though mostly because of the new “cool war” between Washington and Moscow than genuine Russian interest in North Korea.
Finally, America’s dominant regional role has encouraged China to manipulate the instability created by the North. Washington’s ill-disguised effort to contain China, which would be aided by the South’s absorption of North Korea, reinforces China’s commitment to preservation of the Kim regime even at cost of the North’s denuclearization.
America should end its defense guarantees and withdraw its troops from South Korea and Japan. Disengagement would transform the region’s dynamics.
First, the North would face a significantly reduced threat environment. America’s alliance with the South encourages the North to maintain an oversize military establishment, highlighted by weapons of mass destruction.
Second, North Korea’s neighbors would be accountable for the results their own policies toward Pyongyang. They no longer could rely on the U.S. to underwrite their defenses, subsidize their actions, restrain their adversaries, and mitigate their mistakes.
Third, the U.S. would find it easier to improve relations with North Korea from a distance. Although the Obama administration recently tightened sanctions in response to the hacking of Sony Pictures, the U.S. and North apparently have been talking about having talks.
Washington should initiate bilateral discussions intended to open low level diplomatic relations, create selected economic opportunities, and offer expanded ties if the North responds positively. While transformation via engagement is a long-shot, transformation via coercion has failed.
North Korea is Northeast Asia’s biggest security problem. But it is not — or at least should not be — America’s security problem. The U.S. is overextended overseas and perpetually at war and risk of war because Washington insists on making virtually every other nation’s conflict America’s conflict. The Korean Peninsula should be left to the Koreas and their neighbors.
Courtesy of Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties, and a former special assistant to U.S. President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of “Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.”