Calling North Korea’s Bluff

An Air Force weapons officer works “from the target back” to propose a radical new policy.

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Abstract: Recently, President Donald Trump shocked many policy experts when he announced that he would be willing to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The United States should consider what its final objectives are in North Korea and reassess its policy with regard to Kim Jong Un and his nuclear arsenal. The June 12 meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un was historic, but it represented only the first step of what will likely be a long a difficult series of negotiations. If North Korea is serious about potential concessions in return for security promises, the United States should be prepared to call Jong Un’s bluff and even allow him to keep his nuclear weapons for the time being. Embracing such a policy will be difficult in the short-term, but it will ultimately allow the United States to undermine Kim’s regime in the future without resorting to military options.

1: Define the target.

The nature of authoritarianism has changed in the 21st century. Globalization has created a world where information flows more freely than ever, and the vast majority of humanity is painfully aware when their living conditions fall short of first-world standards. The threat to modern authoritarians does not come from outside forces, it comes from within. Particularly in areas such as Korea where crisis is imminent, the nature of modern authoritarianism offers opportunities for the United States and its allies to simultaneously reduce tensions and pursue more satisfying long-term solutions.

First, consider Russia, the authoritarian regime most directly at odds with the United States. Vladimir Putin is hardly in a position of weakness, but he still finds it necessary to continually establish his legitimacy and justify his grip on power. Putin has done this largely by exploiting a somewhat apathetic population and stoking nationalist fervor, all while actively suppressing any semblance of political competition. It is telling of Putin’s insecurity that even in an “election” he was sure to win, he felt it necessary to bar and delegitimize his most popular opponent.

China has taken a similar approach. With China’s gross domestic product set to surpass that of the United States, it would seem that Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have little to fear in terms of legitimacy. However, the CCP has routinely cracked down on any semblance of democratic-type movement, and the party continues to resist many capitalist-style reforms. These types of actions are not in the best interests of China’s population, but coexist with a strong nationalist campaign that stresses order and unity in the face of purported threats. As in Russia, this type of governing is representative of an authoritarian regime primarily fearful of the threats that come from within.

Globalization traps leaders like Putin in a paradox: free trade and capitalist-type reforms raise standards of living, but they also invite demands for a more open society.1 Leaders such as Putin and Jinping justify their authoritarianism by embracing nationalism and spinning a world outlook that requires their governments to protect their people from a more open society. The United States (or perhaps Japan, in China’s case) is a necessary evil for authoritarians, an outside threat that requires strong and stable leadership.

It is an awkward situation, to say the least. While on the surface, it would appear that Putin, Jinping and other authoritarians have strengthened their grips on power recently; these efforts represent short-term gains that reveal long-term weaknesses. Revolutions are not imminent, but unless both regimes can infinitely placate their populations, changes – or demands for such – are likely in the future.

This viewpoint of modern authoritarians is important because it offers the United States a long-term game plan for how to deal with its most troublesome adversaries. Immediate regime-change is not a realistic option, and wars are obviously not beneficial to anyone. American relations with Russia are not ideal by any stretch of the imagination, but a large-scale war, even with Putin’s recent aggressions, seems unlikely. Additionally, while Russia and China are hardly beacons of human rights, they hardly compare to the daily suffering in North Korea.

If the United States can replicate its Russia and China relationships with North Korea, it will have accomplished two very important things. First, the Peninsula will be more secure, and it might be possible to alleviate the suffering of North Korea’s population. Second, the United States will have molded North Korea into an adversary that is still potentially dangerous, but also beholden to the long-term paradoxes that vex modern authoritarians. To be clear: the goal is not to immediately depose Kim (or Putin, or Jinping). The goal is to induce the conditions necessary for internal unrest, which will eventually lead to freedom-minded reforms and a more secure peace. Such a process will take time and will likely cross generations, but it is a goal worthy of pursuit that also guarantees security in the short-term.

Accepting an adversarial relationship is not satisfying in the short-term, but policy-makers must operate within the restrictions of reality: if a large-scale military action is not an option, then the United States must enact long-term regime change strategies. Kim Jong Un is in a unique position, however, as he leads a nation where his totalitarianism is unquestioned. The cracks may be there, but unlike other modern authoritarian states, there is no readily identifiable agent of dissent or pro-democratic movement. This arrangement allows Kim to avoid the pitfalls of other despots, but regime security is still his top priority.

Kim Jong Un claims to want – more than anything else – respect, and North Korean requests for one-on-one negotiations are representative of a desire for equality and ultimate security. Played correctly, the United States could use these desires to mold North Korea into a more stable adversary. However, U.S. policy-makers must first understand that nuclear weapons are not necessarily the most important piece of this complicated strategic puzzle.

2: Why are North Korea’s nuclear weapons not an immediate threat?

North Korea’s nuclear weapons may generate alarm in South Korea and the United States, but for two main reasons, the actual threat posed by Kim Jong Un has only increased under very specific circumstances. First, the addition of a nuclear weapon to North Korea’s arsenal does not, from a brutally macabre perspective, significantly increase the threat to South Korea. With or without nuclear weapons, North Korea has enough concealed artillery to destroy Seoul, and its special operations teams alone could cause enormous amounts of damage. The addition of a nuclear weapon only slightly changes the calculus for South Korea: in the event of any large conflict, massive casualties are inevitable.

The introduction of a North Korean nuclear weapon does affect the United States and Japan because Kim might have the ability to strike coalition bases or the American mainland. However, even for the United States, the practical implications are largely unchanged, even as the casualty risks increase. Regardless of whether Kim launches a large-scale conventional attack or any type of nuclear strike, regime change would almost certainly be the immediate American response.2 It is possible that Chinese or Russian intervention might complicate U.S. regime change efforts, but the post-war landscape would be dire for the North Korean regime regardless.

From a purely strategic standpoint, therefore, a North Korean nuclear weapon only serves a practical deterrent if the security of the North Korean regime is directly threatened. Even then, a nuclear weapon is just an additional – albeit horrifying – crisis to be endured if the removal of the North Korean regime is desired. Again, with or without a nuclear weapon, the loss of life involved with a military-led regime change would be staggering.

This is not to imply that there should be no effort to convince Kim to abandon his nuclear arsenal. However, if the United States really wants to induce stability and undermine the long-term legitimacy of the North Korean regime, the best strategy is to focus on molding Kim into an adversary similar to Russia or China.

3: Work from the target back.

Accomplishing this more realistic objective is difficult because it involves a radical departure from punishment-based sanctions and giving, to a certain extent, Kim exactly what he claims to want:  specifically, perceived respect and a greater sense of security. Direct negotiations are a start, but instead of tying rewards to the removal of nuclear weapons, the United States should offer incentives that coax North Korea into more openness. This is not “killing them with kindness”; it is a direct attack on the North Korean regime by exposing Kim Jong Un and his successors to the same pressures facing other modern authoritarians.

There is a middle ground, of course. North Korea will likely insist on the removal of U.S. troops from the Peninsula (although , but that is non-negotiable both because of the alliance with South Korea and the North’s proven record of duplicity. However, any incentives that boost the regime’s sense of security without removing the United States’ ability to defend South Korea are legitimate. For example, a formal peace treaty with American recognition of North Korea might be advantageous if it includes modest economic liberalizations. Further incentives, such as the establishment of formal diplomatic ties, might induce the closure of prison camps. Any actions that improve the conditions of North Korea’s population may boost Kim’s popularity in the short-term, but anything that slightly opens North Korea to the modern world is ultimately advantageous to the United States and its long-term goals. Again, nuclear weapons do not have to be a factor in these types of negotiations.

The likely removal of sanctions is implicit in this course of action – a difficult concession for those who believe that sanctions have been effective in bringing Kim to the negotiating table. That viewpoint may very well be accurate, but experts note that North Korea has a long history of offering to suspend nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief (and then reneging). North Korea is not like Iran, for example, as sanctions have not been effective in antagonizing a restive portion of the population against its leaders. If the real goal is to ultimately undermine the North Korean regime, it is important to first establish the conditions necessary for sanctions to be truly effective.

The risks associated with this new strategy are minimal as long as the United States remains postured to deter any North Korean duplicity. It is, of course, possible that North Korea will continue its bellicose ways and reject American advances, or simply revert to the status quo after gaining some sort of tangible benefit. The United States military must remain prepared for the worst, and its allies must never question U.S. resolve. Critics will argue that this policy reflects weakness, but by setting realistic objectives and understanding what truly threatens North Korea, the United States can ensure security in the near-term and undermine the long-term legitimacy of North Korea’s regime.



    1. McAllister, Ian, and Stephen White. 2017. “Economic Change and Public Support for Democracy in China and Russia.” Europe-Asia Studies 69, no. 1: 76-91.
    2. US Department of Defense. 2018. “The Nuclear Posture Review.” Washington DC: Department of Defense.
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