How to Plan for the Worst in North Korea
Curbing North Korean aggression through diplomacy is all well and good. But now is the time to stiffen our military resolve against Kim Jong Un.
A year ago, I wrote that North Korea was “the most dangerous country in the world.” With its recent claim to have detonated a hydrogen bomb — something that, thankfully, is under significant dispute — North Korea has fully demonstrated that it does indeed deserve that title.
Kim Jong Un, the country’s so-called “young leader,” is not only young, but unstable, cruel, medically challenged, highly emotional, and in need of a better haircut. Raised in a world-class shark tank, he has mowed down all internal opposition with the kind of mindless brutality that his dictator father and grandfather would applaud.
The North Korean nuclear test is a concern not only because it heralds the development of a new weapons system (a hydrogen fusion bomb), but also because it bespeaks the ability to further miniaturize such a weapon. A smaller weapon could be placed on a long-range and, ultimately, intercontinental missile. That convergence — a small hydrogen bomb and the means to deliver it — is the real nightmare scenario.
Frankly, our efforts to curb the North Korean threat over the past couple of decades and since Kim’s ascension in December 2011 have been weak — sanctions with limited range and effectiveness — and ineffective, with the latest nuclear test as only the latest example of North Korean intransigence.
What should we be doing?
Our best shot at a diplomatic solution is to negotiate alongside China to increase the sanctions to a level with real impact. (This would include freezing North Korean leaders’ personal assets, some of which are held in Chinese banks, for example.) The road to Pyongyang goes through Beijing. The good news is that this may be the first time China is truly willing to impose meaningful sanctions on North Korea, though the Chinese are still hedging their bets.
Beijing must now be starting to realize that Kim is not going to simply mature into a better version of himself. And it is possible that the increasing weaknesses in China’s economy may make it more likely that the country will help rein him in. With China’s economy sputtering, the last thing it needs is an even more destabilizing and emboldened North Korea. Our approach with China, then, should be quiet, low-key, and offline, one aimed at devising a shared plan for sanctions against Pyongyang with real teeth.
We should also look to cyber-operations for additional leverage. The North Koreans don’t have a widely distributed information technology-based economy, so it is harder to hurt them in this area. But there are still ways we can use offensive cyber-operations to degrade their industries, telecommunications, and regime surveillance capability.
Pyongyang, for its part, has shown little reluctance to direct its cyber-apparatus against the United States, causing over $300 million in kinetic damage to Sony Pictures in the infamous hack of 2014. Let’s take serious but proportional action in sectors that matter to Kim. Obviously, anything we can direct against his military capabilities would be the top priority. As an example, using cyber-operations to disrupt his command-and-control systems to submarines and other maritime assets would be an effective demonstration.
Then, there are maritime matters. The United States should work closely with Japan and South Korea to make sure we control the seas in and around North Korea, obviously on both sides of the peninsula. In response, the North Koreans will try to pressure South Korea at sea, attacking with mini-submarines and slipping special forces across borders via maritime operations. We should take those options away from Kim and use the sea to effectively cut off North Korean trade, bottle up its offensive maritime forces, and choke off its access to sea lanes of communication.
We must also strengthen anti-ballistic missile defenses. This means preparing more of America’s high-end land- and sea-based anti-ballistic missile systems — notably the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system for onshore defense and Aegis (Greek for “shield” and the air-defense-at-sea system). The United States should make both of these systems available to Japan and South Korea, America’s closest regional allies.
Fortunately, Japan has a very strong suite of Aegis systems already deployed on its high-tech destroyers. The South Korean Navy is not as advanced, but could put Aegis systems at sea over time. Both nations have access to excellent U.S. land-based anti-ballistic missile systems. And, of course, the United States needs to continue to improve its own domestically based anti-ballistic missile systems to protect its own bases, territories, and states — all of which face increasing risk from rapidly developing North Korean programs.
On top of all this, we must plan for the worst. There is roughly an even chance that this will end badly with open conflict on the Korean Peninsula, putting 35,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel and perhaps 100,000 U.S. dual citizens at high risk. Open conflict would severely damage one of the world’s most vibrant and important economies, and the potential loss of life is enormous. The U.S. military’s detailed, classified plans, honed over decades and used in rigorous training exercises, are sophisticated, realistic, and fully integrated between U.S. and South Korean forces. Continuing to revise these plans is crucial; in particular, ensuring that resources can realistically flow to the commander is crucial.
But while we must plan for the worst, we can still hope for the best. Exploring more “track two” diplomacy (let’s move past Dennis Rodman, for God’s sake) through educational exchanges — music and the arts, sports, and other non-threatening media — could prove helpful. Working to at least put North Koreans alongside Western interlocutors in neutral countries (Switzerland has served as a venue for such a program, for example) might be explored. Granted, Kim has shown nothing but snarled teeth toward the West since taking office, but he is young. While it is highly unlikely that he will turn into the new Lee Kuan Yew of the Korean Peninsula, but he might age a bit and become someone with whom we could work toward a disarmament deal.
But, as the saying goes, hope is not a strategy — so we’d better get ready for truly difficult times ahead as we deal with the most dangerous country in the world. And that means taking a stronger, more aggressive stance against Kim Jong Un’s North Korea.
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