All the Bad Options with North Korea

We should further step up our propaganda war via radio and social media against North Korea and its Chinese master. We should assist with an underground railroad to free North Korean slaves everywhere. Embolden the non-violent freedom fighter. And we need more swaggering with our ships and planes not only near the Korean Peninsula but also in the South China Sea. The moves to contain North Korea should be a part of a grand strategy to put China in its place.

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By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz l May 9, 2017

Our options as far as Pyongyang is concerned depend, really, on our strategic goal regarding North Korea. What is our strategic goal? We don’t have one. It should be ultimately the destruction of the Communist regime there and the liberation of its slaves. But, we have not championed a solution like this since General Douglas MacArthur wanted to nuke a weak China less than a year into the Korean War, which instead lasted three years. We are happy with a two Korea solution. And so is Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Moscow, and others for the most part. So, by default it appears that our strategic goal is to maintain the status quo, while reigning in Pyongyang’s cyclical nuclear outbursts. It certainly is an exasperating exercise in brinksmanship.

Whether or not this is an oxymoronic strategic goal, our options vis-à-vis North Korea should also be informed by our assumptions regarding not just the totalitarian regime of dictator Kim Jong Un, but also the regional geopolitical context. Namely, we assume that whatever we do there impacts, most importantly China. Then we worry about Japan and South Korea. Moscow is almost an afterthought in our strategic calculus that the Russian Federation is a Far Eastern power. Yet, it is all but forgotten that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin created North Korea following Imperial Japan’s unconditional surrender in the Second World War.

China, however, definitely holds the key to the situation. North Korea is its unruly lap dog. In extremis, it can be compared to the Soviet bloc’s Albania: an autarchy within an autarchy. Unlike Albania which repudiated first Yugoslavia and, later, the Soviet Union, North Korea maintains an uneasy relationship with China. The border between two Communist states is porous, not sealed. Illicit goods enter the Hermit Kingdom, and human cargo, mostly women, trickle into China. The secret police and border guards are undoubtedly involved in the sordid business. For Kim Jong Un and his Politburo the leaking border is a safety valve. And the practice of slavery is state policy with North Korean victims peddled all over the world as forced laborers: from Russia through China to Zambia.

Then, there is official trade and aid coming chiefly from Communist China but also post-Communist Russia. In February 2017, Beijing suspended all coal imports from Pyongyang until the end of the year, thus badly hurting its unruly puppet’s economy. This was most likely in conjunction with the North Korean assassination of the dictator’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, who was under Chinese protection. Without Chinese support the North Korean state would be barely able to survive. If Beijing turned actively hostile, a regime change in Pyongyang would be quite feasible.

What Options Do We Have?

Although it lacks a well defined strategic goal, the White House at least understands the crucial role of the Forbidden City in the game with the Hermit Kingdom. What can we do? Our options can be either military or diplomatic, covert or overt.

First, we do nothing. This can entail adopting a wait and see attitude, which, alas, squares with our usual reactive stance. If something bad should happen, then we’ll think about a response. Or, even if something truly horrible happens, then we can wash our hands so long as it does not impact the United States directly, as in a missile attack. Let’s embrace the logic of neo-isolationism: To hell with our allies and our commitments. Doing nothing also allows us to maintain a high moral ground because, indeed, if something horrific follows, we can then jump into the fry, including going counter-nuclear, with a clear conscience. Over the nuclear ashes of South Korea and Japan, world public opinion would no longer whine that “the Americans are from Mars” as we get an international blank check to obliterate the rouge state of North Korea. If, despite our complete inaction, Kim Jong Un desists with his nuclear sabre rattling, then we can congratulate ourselves on our restraint and earn brownie points on the international stage. Perhaps that is why an 18th/19th century reactionary monarchist Joseph de Maistre said, “sometimes the hardest thing is to do nothing.”

Our second option is to give Pyongyang an ultimatum to disarm. If Kim Jong Un refuses, we resort to violence. Plan minimum would be to destroy his rockets. He could then retaliate by attacking South Korea. To prevent this (as well as any future problems), we would have to eliminate the entire North Korean top leadership in one surgical strike. This would most likely cause chaos. It could spill over the borders of the hapless state. It is possible that a second tier of Communist leaders would reconstitute the government and seek revenge against their foes by invading South Korea. Please remember that we gave Seoul about 30,000 hostages – American servicemen and women – and they would be targeted first in their bases near the border.

Eliminating the entire leadership would also be hard. Now that Pyongyang is on a war footing, the leadership is dispersed and Kim Jong Un and his closest followers must be hiding in secret bunkers. TECHINT only goes so far in locating them; China most likely has better HUMINT than we do. So Beijing should be involved. But under any circumstances, China would be very reluctant, if not outright hostile to America’s meddling in its backyard. This would be perceived as a loss of face by the Middle Kingdom.

Therefore, we could propose to the Chinese a war by proxy. Let’s unleash Japan. The Japanese have recently changed their constitution and now they can engage in combat outside of their homeland. In fact, Japanese soldiers are fighting in South Sudan. Why not in North Korea? After all, it is Tokyo that feels most threatened by Pyongyang and pushes the U.S. to solve the problem. Why don’t the Japanese solve it themselves? As exciting as it may sound, it is not desirable for several reasons. First, we defeated Japan in the Second World War to keep it docile. We do not want to set a precedent to resurrect Tokyo’s neo-imperialism. Second, if we move against China’s wishes, it will be perceived as an insult. If the Japanese step in, the Chinese will consider it as casus belli for historical and geopolitical reasons.

The same, albeit to a lesser extent, applies to a war by the South Korean proxy enabled by America. Further, it is hardly feasible for cultural reasons to sick democratic South Koreans against totalitarian North Koreans. Finally, South Korea is in amidst of a serious political crisis. A conservative president has been impeached and a leftist stands to be the winner of the upcoming election. A war by proxy is simply not in the cards.

The third option is to convince, cajole, or compel China to handle North Korea directly. We would either support this openly or pretend to frown on anything that smacks of violence in tune with the international sentiment. We can help the Chinese to cobble together a coalition to put diplomatic pressure on North Korea. We can support Beijing on the UN Security Council for peace operation in North Korea. Of course, we would have to get Russia on our side. But openly delegating to the Chinese our power and blessings to thwart Kim Jong Un would reflect poorly on our global leadership.

So, What Do We Do?

Although de Maistre was wise, sometimes Edmund Burke makes more sense: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Perhaps we should indulge in secret diplomacy with China against North Korea, and unleash the might of America’s political warfare against Pyongyang. Bleed the regime dry by cutting off all its hard currency supplies. We should start by shutting down the string of government-owned Korean restaurants in many a Western country. We should also thwart human trafficking wherever we have influence to do so. This concerns not only African nations, but also European ones, like Poland, which turn their eyes away from this dastardly practice. We can also extend our anti-Russian sanctions to include companies which employ North Korean slaves. Hit Chinese firms in the West who do business with North Korea. In fact, we should target anyone who deals with Kim Jong Un.

We should further step up our propaganda war via radio and social media against North Korea and its Chinese master. We should assist with an underground railroad to free North Korean slaves everywhere. Embolden the non-violent freedom fighter. And we need more swaggering with our ships and planes not only near the Korean Peninsula but also in the South China Sea. The moves to contain North Korea should be a part of a grand strategy to put China in its place.


Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is author of Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas and teaches a seminar on the history of the Muslim world at Patrick Henry College. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the Online-Conservative-Journalism Center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.