The Supreme Art of War on the Korean Peninsula: Regime Change Through Targeting the Mind of Kim Jong Un
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I was the chief war planner for the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea, I spent considerable time studying Sun Tzu, including this passage:
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
This insight struck me for two reasons. First, U.S. war plans on the Korean Peninsula, in the Middle East, and elsewhere around the world devoted little thought to how America might subdue its enemies without fighting. Second, although I was a product of the Army’s elite School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), neither I nor my classmates had received much instruction in turning Sun Tzu’s advice into reality.
Worse still, Sun Tzu outlined our options and we still picked the worst of the lot: “…the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.” Despite this advice, most of my training as a war planner consisted of exercises devoted to attacking the enemy’s army and besieging walled cities (or at least prepared defenses).
As North Korea accelerates its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon capable of striking the United States, our strategy is as unimaginative as ever. One expert on North Korea argued that the United States has three equally bad options: a pre-emptive military strike to destroy Kim’s nuclear arsenal, or some combination of diplomacy and economic sanctions to compel Kim to give up his nuclear ambitions. In the conventional thinking of Washington, the military option would result in catastrophic losses, while negotiations and sanctions are unlikely to compel Kim to yield.
This limited thinking fails to take into account Kim’s strategic goal of regime preservation. Kim is neither a madman nor an aggressor; he is a rational actor with an ordered set of preferences. Regime preservation is at the top of that list, and Kim’s actions are generally consistent with that goal. North Korea’s nuclear program is clearly a rational act to deter U.S. attacks. While using a nuclear weapon would result in the regime’s destruction, merely possessing such a weapon is a highly effective deterrent. It is equally illogical to believe Kim is an aggressor bent on invading and conquering the South. With twice the population and more than forty times the GDP of the North, the Republic of Korea could easily defeat a conventional invasion with or without U.S. assistance, albeit at a horrific cost.
The dangers of Kim’s nuclear program are twofold. First, North Korea’s nuclear program might encourage South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons programs. Such actions would weaken non-proliferation efforts and increase the risk of a regional nuclear arm race in East Asia. Second, escalating tensions in the region might result in miscalculation and escalation, leading to a war that would leave all belligerents worse off. This “Guns of August” scenario of a regional crisis spiraling into a major war is a legitimate concern on the Korean Peninsula.
While the U.S. goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula is a valid strategic goal, nearly everything the U.S. does strengthens Kim’s strategy of regime preservation. Bellicose American rhetoric elevates North Korea’s stature from backward pauper to major regional power. More importantly, U.S. hostility aids Kim as the young dictator consolidates control over his regime. He already ordered the murder of his own half-brother and senior regime officials whom he considered threats to his rule. A hostile America reinforces Kim’s domestic narrative as a heroic protector of his homeland.
Kim has done the calculus and knows that U.S. threats of military action are empty bluster.
China continues to tolerate the North’s nuclear program and prop Kim up through limited trade rather than risk the refugee flows that would come with conventional war. North Korea has correctly calculated that limited sanctions and diplomatic isolation are an acceptable price to pay for its nuclear deterrent. In short, Kim knows that confrontation with the U.S. strengthens his control at home with only limited consequences from abroad.
It’s time for a new approach, informed by Sun Tzu, that targets the mind of Kim Jong Un. Kim’s primary goal is regime preservation and his greatest fear is a coup d’etat by his internal enemies. The United States should wage a covert information campaign that exacerbates this fear in order to depose Kim and replace him with a less bellicose military regime. Every element of the regime that interacts with the outside world can be weaponized to fuel Kim’s paranoia. The United States should create and manipulate information that causes Kim to distrust his generals, diplomats, economic experts, propagandists, and above all else his intelligence services.
Conventional U.S. strategic thinking views the North Korean regime as a solid object to be bludgeoned into submission through the overwhelming application of military and economic power. An information campaign views the North Korean regime as a fragile social network that can be damaged or dissolved through the selective application of information.
The truthfulness of the information is beside the point; the goal is not necessarily to change reality but to change Kim’s perception of reality. Like any dictator, Kim cannot safely ignore the risk of a coup. He must therefore surveil and purge any potential competitors. This paranoia will play into American hands: even if North Korean regime officials are unlikely to cooperate with the United States initially, Kim’s inevitable overreaction will push them into our arms. We can offer Kim’s generals a generous bargain: they can maintain their positions in the North Korean autocracy so long as they deliver up Kim Jong Un and his nuclear program. The offer looks all the more generous when the alternative is public execution.
An covert information campaign can also complement overt traditional strategic approaches with other actors in the region. China and South Korea object to regime change regime change as too costly. However, they might object less strenuously if that change involved a coup directed at Kim rather than a chaotic collapse in Pyongyang that sends refugees flowing south and west. Both Seoul and Beijing know that Kim cannot be punished into giving up his nuclear weapons. However, both might be more willing to embrace tougher sanctions if they see a plausible end state: a North Korea without Kim. Moreover, a strategy of regime change by targeting Kim’s mind does not require Chinese and South Korean cooperation, although such cooperation would certainly be helpful.
Under this approach, time is on the side of the United States. Kim needs nuclear weapons to deter a U.S. attack; he is unlikely to commit national and personal self-immolation by attacking the United States. There is no need to rush to preventive war – an act Bismark correctly described as “committing suicide for fear of death.” Instead, the United States should patiently work to prevent escalation and miscalculation while methodically building up internal resistance to Kim among his generals.
No strategy, including this one, is free of risks. Skeptics can correctly point out that the United States has a poor history of “engineering” regime change – Libya (2011), Chile (1973) and Iran (1953) are but a few examples supporting this objection. Manipulating the internal politics of any hostile foreign power is an uncertain business; all the more so in a closed society such as North Korea. However, no strategy, including this one, should be judged against a metric of perfection. The proper question is whether or not this strategy is better than the available alternatives.
A strategy of regime change by targeting the mind of Kim Jong Un is far less costly than any direct military option. Such a strategy is also more likely to succeed than negotiations or sanctions. Doing nothing may be the next best strategy to that described above, but inaction increases the risk a nuclear arms race in East Asia.
Kim understands that his nuclear program is essential to his survival. North Korea’s generals may come to understand that Kim’s survival is not indivisibly linked to their own.
Paul Yingling is a retired Army officer. He was Chief of Plans for the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division in the Republic of Korea from 2002-2003.
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