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Pushing for Regime Change in North Korea Is a Bad Idea

Why aggressively trying to topple the Kim regime could backfire -- badly.

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This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on January 12, 2014 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (front L) inspecting the command of Korean People's Army (KPA) Unit 534. AFP PHOTO / KCNA via KNS REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

In the pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Richard Haass makes an unusually reckless recommendation for the doyen of establishment thinking: “ending North Korea’s existence as an independent entity.”

I am sympathetic to the advocacy of regime change in North Korea — there is no better case, either on strategic or humanitarian grounds. Intervention in North Korea would liberate 200,000 Koreans trapped in concentration camps, provide nutritional assistance to the 80 percent of Koreans suffering long-term deprivation, reunite families separated for more than two generations, negate the nuclear weapons threat currently posed by the Kim regime, alleviate the need for stationing American forces on the peninsula, remove the threat from 10,000 North Korean artillery pieces trained on Seoul, and end the proliferation pipeline that has assisted nuclear weapons programs in Pakistan, Syria, and Iran. If it works, that is.

And that’s the problem with Haass’s recommendation: It assumes that we can turn the screws on Kim Jong Un without catastrophic responses or the collapse of North Korea burgeoning into chaos. Which is surprising from someone who wrote so ardently about the mistakes of such wars of choice. Implicit in Haass’s argument is that we are already at war of a tepid kind with North Korea, with the threat of much larger conflagration looming. But those arguments were likewise made of Iraq, and Iraq had much less manifest means to damage both the United States and our treaty allies.

His argument is premised on confidence that he understands both Chinese and Korean choices — that if only we provided the right incentives, China would flip from bolstering Pyongyang. But the United States has been trying for over a decade to turn that trick, with precious little sign of progress. Haass argues that China’s calculus is now changing, that North Korea is becoming a liability: Whereas Beijing previously supported North Korea for reasons of ideology, restraining American influence, and concern about refugees, its overwhelming concern now is for “years and more likely decades of relative stability in the region so that it can continue to address its many domestic challenges.” Stability may be what China needs, but that doesn’t appear to be what China is choosing. Indeed, there appears to be little evidence that Beijing is willing to back away from Pyongyang.

It is similarly plausible that China still sees a scary North Korea as useful in tying down Washington’s attention. It may well prefer that North Korea continues to imprison its people rather than China having to police them. And Beijing might well be confident that Japan is constrained domestically against nuclear weapons development. Moreover, the possibility may even exist for an agreement with South Korea that worries about the credibility of an American security guarantee. After all, from Seoul’s perspective President George W. Bush said the United States would not allow a nuclear North Korea — but he did.

At the same time, Washington denuclearized half of the Korean peninsula, removing U.S. nuclear weapons — but two-thirds of South Koreans now favor developing nuclear weapons of their own. President Barack Obama’s record on enforcing red lines (hint: not good) will only have further aggravated South Korea’s anxiety. Haass points out that China appears more interested in relations with Seoul than with Pyongyang; perhaps China hopes to achieve a peninsular condominium with the South Korean government to slowly shift dependence of North Korea from China to South Korea.

All of which is to say, as Haass himself has persuasively argued, that it is unsound to premise a regime change strategy on the basis of speculative flights that are likely to be wrong in many respects.

The other major flaw in Haass’s argument is lighting a fuse without putting adequate defense preparations in place. His proposals for “undermining it from within” and denuding it of Chinese support corner the Kim regime. These are deeply destabilizing moves against an erratic regime that boasts of targeting its nuclear weapons at Los Angeles and Colorado Springs. Setting this train of events in motion would make North Korea’s a government with nothing to lose — and that’s the most dangerous kind. It is also far beyond what South Korea, the ally most exposed to North Korean retaliation, is likely to support.

Another problem with Haass’s “Time to End the North Korean Threat” is that it is innocent of the scaffolding that international institutions and regional alliances provide — and require. Haass recommends a trilateral U.S.-Chinese-South Korean understanding. But getting the peace right will require much more: assuaging South Korean and Japanese anxiety about reducing American troops; assuring the Philippines and others that an agreement between China, the United States, and South Korea — as Richard advocates — will not result in abandoning their concerns about Chinese military provocations; ramping up U.N. involvement to manage the horrors internal to North Korea; ensuring the Russians see no angle to exploit; and verifying weapons don’t flood out to other rogue regimes.

Haass is right that the United States government should be providing assurances to the Chinese government that it would not take advantage of the Kim regime’s collapse to move American military forces north of the 38th parallel. Stability forces will surely be needed, but South Koreans would be much better at the work anyway, as they speak the language and have ties of nationality and family to facilitate interaction. We ought also to be seeking assurances from the Chinese they also would not move forces into a North Korean vacuum.

While persuading the Chinese to ratchet down their support for Kim Jong Un merits continuing effort, there is only one lever that has shown any real success in dealing with the North Korean regime: cutting off their money. The main sources of revenue for the North Korean leadership are evidently counterfeiting and proliferation. The former Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey created a team of Treasury experts and masterminded the means of sleuthing the money trail; his office’s pressure in 2007 on Banco Delta Asia in Macau brought North Korea into cooperation. It is an elegant, quiet, and deadly serious means of applying smart power that hurts the regime without imposing further suffering on its benighted citizens. And it’s far closer to the “proportionate response” President Obama hinted at for North Korea’s hacking of Sony Entertainment and threats against movie theaters showing The Interview. These sanctions on leading regime figures are still the most practical means to try and affect the behavior of North Korea’s evil government.

KNS/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

Kori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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