What to do about Kim?

Sanctions, diplomacy, force—can anything sway the Dear Leader?

Choi Jae-ku/AP/ KNS/AFP/Getty Images/ Korean News Agency/Reuters

It’s not often that the United States so candidly admits its impotence in the face of aggressive acts by hostile regimes. But there was Robert Gates, the U.S. secretary of defence, discussing options the United States and the rest of the world have to deal with Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, after an international investigation concluded North Korea torpedoed and sunk the Cheonan, a South Korean navy ship, killing 46 sailors on board. “I think there is no good answer,” he told the BBC in June. “You can bring together additional pressure. You can do another resolution in the UN. But as long as the regime doesn’t care what the outside world thinks of it, as long as it doesn’t care about the well-being of its people, there’s not a lot you can do about it, to be quite frank—unless you’re willing at some point to use military force. And nobody wants to do that.”

Instead, the United States and South Korea are going to great lengths to show that they can use force, even if they won’t. The two allies carried out joint naval exercises off the Korean peninsula in July. The exercises were designed to remind North Korea of America’s support for the South. The regime in Pyongyang duly threw a tantrum and threatened a “physical response,” but the fact remains that—with the exception of new American sanctions—North Korea will suffer little as a result of its attack.

But North Korea cannot simply be shunned, isolated and forgotten. It has a nuclear weapons program, and appears willing to shop the technology around. In 2007, Israel destroyed what looked like a Syrian nuclear reactor modelled on North Korean designs. Some U.S. intelligences sources have claimed North Korean technicians were at the facility when it was bombed. Its March sinking of the South Korean corvette was a blatant act of war against a close U.S. and Canadian ally. And quite apart from the murder and mischief it can bring to its neighbours and the outside world, the cruelty and incompetence of its governance results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands—including by starvation—at home.

The use of military force is often described as a “last resort” option. Whether or not this is true in practice, the very possibility that force might be employed opens up other, less violent, means of influencing a hostile regime’s behaviour. When it comes to North Korea, however, its adversaries’ military options are particularly constrained. It’s not just North Korea’s nuclear program. It is North Korea’s conventional arsenal, and its proximity to the South Korean capital, Seoul. “If there’s war, Seoul would be almost completely destroyed, no matter what we did,” says Leslie Gelb, a long-time foreign policy analyst and president emeritus of the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. “The North Koreans have something like 12,000 artillery pieces and rockets sitting on the demilitarized zone. Most of them would be fired off, and Seoul would be gone.”

This leaves sanctions, which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently announced will be expanded. But as Gates conceded, these are of limited use against a regime that is content to let its people starve to death en masse. “The North Korean army always has enough to eat,” says Gelb. “We’re in a box.” Even targeted sanctions designed to squeeze North Korea’s political and military leadership haven’t accomplished much in the past, and there’s little reason to believe they could be made more effective—especially as long as Pyongyang is sheltered and supported by China. “Any time they set off the wrong weapon, or kill somebody, or whatever, we can apply one more round of sanctions of indefinite duration and relatively incalculable effect,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively on North Korea. “It smacks a little too much of the same old, same old.”

O’Hanlon advocates imposing reparation payments on North Korea for the “mass murder” it committed by sinking the Cheonan. He models this idea on the demands made by the international community on Libya to end the sanctions imposed on it after the Lockerbie Pan Am jetliner bombing. North Korea would likely not agree to such demands, but the money could be garnished by reducing trade and aid for several months.

Such a tactic might result in justice for the families of the South Korean sailors, but it does little to solve the bigger problem of a regime in North Korea willing to engage in such acts of aggression, and at risk to commit much worse atrocities.

Some analysts have argued in favour of engaging Pyongyang. A recent report published by the Council on Foreign Relations advocates increasing cultural and academic exchanges to integrate North Korea into the international community and global financial institutions. Such an approach has resulted in significant reforms these past few decades in North Korea’s patron, China. Beijing is still a repressive one-party state, but it’s a stable one that the West can deal with profitably. Chinese President Hu Jintao made a state visit to Ottawa in June.

“If there is motivation to modernize their economy and improve people’s livelihood, then that should lead to a less hostile stance to the outside world, and a need to have a normal or co-operative relationship with outside countries,” says Susan Shirk, director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California, San Diego. The problem, says Shirk, who has travelled three times to North Korea in efforts to promote a more open economy there, is that there’s little sign that Kim’s regime is now interested in the idea, after briefly flirting with it in the early 2000s. “They are keen on foreign investment. But they don’t seem to get that it’s not going to drop from the sky unless they make changes to their own government and legal system.”

The regime may feel that economic reforms would erode its political authority, but Shirk points to China—a country whose ruling Communist dictatorship brought in freer markets, weakening its grip on power—as evidence that this is not necessarily the case. “My own explanation is that the military and in particular heavy industry, who benefit from protection, are very much opposed,” says Shirk. “And the military is the strongest organized interest in North Korea, and they have done everything they could to spoil efforts that would undercut their privileged position.”

There may be another explanation why Pyongyang is so adverse to integrating North Korea into the international community. B.R. Myers, a South Korea-based literary critic, spent eight years sifting through the vast output of North Korea’s propaganda machine—everything from posters, to nightly newscasts, to textbooks for children. In a recently published book, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, he concludes that North Korea’s state ideology is a race-based world view closer to 1930s Japanese fascism than the Stalinist Communism to which it is most often compared.

North Koreans are constantly told they are so innocent and childlike that they cannot survive without the protection of a parental leader who shields them from the cruel and deceptive world. State media in North Korea calls Kim the “great mother.” Myers argues that because Kim Jong Il’s North Korea is built around the idea of a racially pure enclave, it would collapse if the country started co-operating with the miscreant filth outside its walls. “Were Kim Jong Il to abandon his ideology of paranoid race-based nationalism and normalize relations with Washington, his personality cult would lose all justification, while his impoverished country would lose all reason to exist as a separate Korean state,” writes Myers in a recent essay.

“The problem for U.S. negotiators is therefore not one of sticks versus carrots; the regime in Pyongyang will neither be bullied nor sweet-talked into committing political suicide.”

If the governments of the United States, China, South Korea and Japan were to be perfectly honest, they’d probably admit that, as loathsome as the Kim regime is, they’d rather it didn’t commit political suicide, either. The consequences are too messy, says Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. They include unsecured nuclear facilities; the possibility of a violent power struggle within North Korea; refugees flooding into the South and to China; and, perhaps worst of all, the United States and China at odds, sending troops into the collapsing country with different ideas about how to deal with the chaos.

A gradual change in the way North Korea conducts itself is an outcome the United States and South Korea could live with. It’s more likely to come after Kim, who is thought to have suffered a stroke two years ago, dies. Kim is trying to secure a power base for his little-known son, Kim Jong Un, who was recently described as a “genius of geniuses” in a propaganda document. He is also working to keep the loyalty of his top generals, recently dishing out mass promotions and luxury cars.

Richard C. Bush, director for Northeast Asia policy studies at the Brooking Institution, believes North Korea’s attack on the Cheonan might have been motivated in part by Kim’s desire to appease military leaders and thereby secure their support for his son. Sinking the ship also sunk any chance that North Korea might be again drawn into multilateral negotiations over its nuclear program. “He needs the generals’ support for his son, so he wouldn’t want to alienate them by going into negotiations where their nuclear weapons are on the table,” says Bush.

No one really knows what sort of leader the younger Kim might be—if in fact he does succeed his father. But, according to Bush, U.S. and South Korean policy toward North Korea today—be it carrots or sticks—is geared toward influencing the decisions of whoever rules the country when Kim Jong Il no longer does. His son will not have the same power as his father, and major decisions will likely involve those who head the country’s major institutions, including its military.

It’s unlikely that Kim’s successor would endorse political change of the type that saw East Germany so quickly shed decades of Communism and reunite with a democratic West Germany at the end of the Cold War—and in any case there is no evidence that a democratic movement exists among North Korean civilians. But Bush believes similar results might be achieved, at a much slower pace. “I think Koreans and North Asians would be better off if there were some sort of transition to a unified peninsula, but done in a way where the level of violence is kept to a minimum. That’s what the people of North Korea deserve,” he says.

“If we could secure through negotiations a total denuclearization and the start of reforms that China has been engaged in for the last 30 years, that’s not a bad outcome,” Bush adds.

“It might still involve a certain amount of suffering, but it would likely improve the humanitarian situation for the people who live there. China would probably prefer some version of the status quo to unification, but it’s possible for South Korea and the United States to reassure China that the sort of unification we envisage wouldn’t hurt their interests. I think the major powers in Northeast Asia, including the United States, would be better off if we didn’t have this reckless regime in power.”

True. But not even the American secretary of defence has a good idea of how we might get there.




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What to do about Kim?

  1. Not much can be done as long as China has no immediate plans to help control North Korea. Maybe it would have been a different story if it had been their ship destroyed and their sailors lost. The time will come, however, when China, wanting to become a leading world power, will not be able to continue their non interventionest stance and then the situation will change. Hopefully, that time may not be too far away.

  2. This article makes a few mistakes. China is actually being remarkably cooperative on North Korea. Hilary Clinton recently was able to gain Chinese support for new sanctions against the DPRK, which is something absolutely unheard of. The reason why they've been so hesitant to help in the past is due to the refugee problem China would encounter. A collapse of the DPRK would certainly result in 23 million mal-nourished refugees flooding over the Chinese border; a problem that would make the situation at the US/Mexican border look farcical. Also, the notion that DPRK racial policies make them fascist a la the Japanese rather than Stalinist and less likely to engage in the world as they don't want to deal with "filth" is also ludicrous. No fascist country has ever hermited itself the way North Korea has. Indeed, a close comparison is, ironically, the Stalinist Soviet Union before the start of WWII.

    The best hope, as put near the end of the first page, is to engage the North Koreans. War would be too damaging, sanctions only further entrenches the regime. Sanctions all too frequently end up hurting citizens which drives them into the arms of the government. Sanctions only serves to legitimize propaganda and usually impacts their bottom line which is a killer. Wealth creates democracy.

    • While I second your point about the comparison to Japan/Germany, I am less convinced that wealth creates democracy. The primary mechanism in expanding democracy through history has been war. Wars force governments to make political bargains with the working class, which tends to provide the cannon fodder and industrial muscle necessary for wars. Democracies have also tended to win wars, and create democracies in newly formed states.

      Authoritarian regimes have been able to remain fairly stable for long stretches without democratizing. Think of Singapore or China. Other cases like Taiwan and South Korea are a poor basis for comparison because of high levels of US influence. Indeed, high economic growth can help legitimize an authoritarian regime and prevent demands for reform. Poor economic conditions can create increased demands for reform from the broader population as well as a strong strategic push to restore growth. Perhaps the best example of this is glasnost under Gorbachev – states reform when their institutions are failing, not when they are succeeding.

      • The natural thought from people living in a democracy is to think that the more things get better, of course, the more we're going to like the government of the day, hence they win our vote. We don't know any better so we automatically assume that it applies to authoritarian nations as well. It doesn't. All authoritarain countries are fairly poor, including China. When the level of wealth rises, it alleviates a lot of concerns which takes up most of one's persons time. They have work, they can feed their family, they can pay they bills. When they have that ability, they can take up their time with achieving the next thing, political and economic rights. Going back to the example of China, one could make the assumption that the government today is stable, but there are tens of thousands of anti-government protests per year. There was a wholesale uprising in Tibet in 2008. That and combined with China's relatively free access to information (the Great Firewall of China is easily defeated) it's only a matter of time before there's a change in China. Whether the government slowly reforms or there's a wholesale change we'll see.

        As for the Russian example, I think it's a bad example. Ironically, the most free elections Russia ever had was under Gorbachev and Soviet rule during the RSFSR held presidential elections. Outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia is a poor, backwards country with industry that pre-dates 1991. Consider the reason why the Soviet Union collapsed was due to a dead economy where things were manufactured with heavily outdated technology. That was 20 years ago. Furthermore, farms are still collectivised.

        Indeed, authoritarian regimes are stable when they don't have to interact with the world and they can maintain citizen reliance upon the government. North Korea, Cuba, Burma, Zimbabwe are all countries that for the most part shun the world. We happily oblige them with sanctions which fit perfectly what these countries want us to do. They want us to give them excuses as to why we're bad, make citizens poor etc. etc.

  3. What to do about Kim? How to "engage" Pyongyang? "Covert operation" and "simultaneous demise of head and upper echelons of leadership" spring to mind as the most useful gift to the people of NoKo and the greater region. Anyone got any better ideas?

    • The Korean's may be dictatorial but they're not stupid. First of all, the likelihood of being able to get close enough to those who would be killed is near impossible. Second, the minute they'd find a lot of their leaders dead, it would be plainly obvious for all to see who did it. When they do, explain to me how the west defuses the situation to avoid a war? Unless you want one. If you do you're as crazy as Kim.

      • Never said it was a good idea. Just a useful gift. And, as crazy as the idea is, I can't really think of anything better when it comes to this insane asylum with nukes.

        • As horrible as it sounds, the status quo is better. War will kill a lot more people than Kim ever could. Besides, he's about to hand over power. There's no telling what kind of policies could be coming from the next Kim, if he even has meaningful power.

          • I agree – I am also not sure whether all North Korean elites are necessarily threats. There may be divisions within the government of North Korea (Kim Jong Il himself does not appear to be all that influential, and Kim Jong Un is only 28), that could be exploited. A strategy of leadership decapitation would probably discredit any faction of moderates within the North Korean government, and unite all against an accommodation.

            Age could also be a big factor in shifting power among elites. In the 1980's, for instance, the USSR's more conservative leaders kept dying until a younger moderate (Gorbachev) was put in charge.

  4. The key question is why North Korea wants nuclear weapons. In some cases, proliferation can be explained by national security concerns – nukes are the ultimate deterrent. For instance, the USSR launched a rapid program to develop nuclear weapons after the Second World War for obvious reasons. I do not find this explanation convincing in the North Korean threat, however, because Kim's pursuit of nuclear weapons dates back to the early 90's, when he had little reason to fear an American invasion (and anyway, North Korea had a nuclear ally at the time in China). A more plausible version would emphasize North Korean fears of Chinese regional hegemony. If this is the case, then Chinese reassurance is the best course of action.

    Other cases of nuclear weapon development have been driven by domestic politics. Coalitions of domestic actors (from the military, to leaders, to particular industries) see it as being in their interest to develop nuclear weapons. The nuclear non-proliferation treaty makes the most sense given this type of proliferation, because it makes it easier for coalitions to develop around peaceful nuclear technology rather than nuclear weapon development. Since North Korea is ruled by a fairly narrow slice of the population, I don't think this is an instance of political coalition-building. However, if this was the driving factor, sanctions would make sense.

    Rather I think this is about a third possibility – North Korea wants the prestige and respect that all nuclear weapon states have. Look at the composition of the UN security council – the North Koreans are following a model that has worked for others. Nuclear states are taken seriously in a way that non-nuclear states (and particularly basket cases like North Korea) are not. Nuclear weapons could give Kim a seat at the table, and a tool by which to extract concessions (even the threat of building nuclear weapons has proven useful in that regard in the past). If this is North Korea's aim, the responses likeliest to succeed in preventing proliferation would be either to accept a larger role for North Korea or to use force. However, the first is undesirable, and the second is very costly.

    • Of course they want it as prestige and respect but don't be fooled. It's also about a deterrent to the US. The DPRK is highly offended by the presence of 35,000 American soldiers on the peninsula and always has been. Whether it makes sense to you or not, they really are afraid that the US will depose the regime. North Korea was relatively cooperative until Bush came into power and essentially cut off relations. He destroyed the work Clinton and Albright did to engage North Korea. He named them as part of the axis of evil along with Iran and Iraq and then promptly invaded Iraq. 3 years late, the North has nuclear weapons.

      You're also right about Kim using weapons as tools. He's done this with things that aren't nuclear weapons as well. The normal tactic is before a round of negotiations, he'll fire off some missiles to raise pulses, he'll sit down at the table and say we'll trade you the missile program for food and electricity.

  5. I am more worried about what do we do about our Dear Leader. I think he is more dangerous to the survival of this Nation then his counter part in Koran.

    • harper is not starving people en masse.

  6. Well written article, but two things are missing in this essay: a more detailed account of China's political relationship with the PRK and the full extent of outside economic involvement in North Korea. Both factors contain key information needed to understand the situation and determine the best course of action. The former is underreported in the West because China, unlike western powers, does not like to advertise its foreign policy, preferring to discreetly handle most affairs of State. The latter is little talked about simply because it is a dirty little secret. Several foreign companies are currently proffiting from North Korean business ventures and other companies wouldn't mind getting in on the exploitation of a this well trained, highly disciplined, and inexpensive labor source. My hunch is that China will solve this problem, slowly, quietly, and deliberately, unless the West somehow bungles it up prematurely.

  7. Nothing can be done until he is dead. Even then options are limited given the massive NK army, loads and loads of conventional missles aimed at SK capital and the nuclear wildcard.

    The South fears the same thing the Chinese do, mass refuggee's upon the demise of the North, think East/West Germany x10.

    I really do think that treating Kim like the 4 year old he is will continue to be the only (somewhat) workable option. Despite my shared outrage regarding the sunk South Korean ship, there really is no recourse here. (given the above)

    I would be curious to see how a complete American withdrawal from SK would change the political landscape though (but that ain't happening soon!). I honestly believe the South Koreans no longer require American support, they are already a highly developed nation.

  8. "after an international investigation concluded North Korea torpedoed and sunk the Cheonan"

    Twenty five years ago I'd believe it. Now, I don't. I've read the North Korean News Agency's website and without a nanometer of exaggeration it is less ridiculous than Macleans or the NYT. The "investigation" did not find any proof that the Norks did it, though we do have proof that the USS Maine, the Lusitania, Pearl Harbour, Gulf of Tonkin, and other maritime incidents were welcomed by certain interest groups as a convenient causus belli.

    North Korea is a sovereign state located on the other side of the planet and it is not for Canada to "do" anything other than respect its sovereignty and perhaps cease with the fake reports of Norks eating grass for subsistence, so stop warmongering.

    "these are of limited use against a regime that is content to let its people starve to death en masse."

    OK, this is a serious accusation and I'm calling you on it: post proof or retract. Who told you they are starving en masse? A bought and paid for American think tanker from the beltway? This is Walter Duranty stuff, dude.

    • I was laughing….I really I was, until I started to suspect that you wern't joking.

    • Yes, it is clear that mass starvation in North Korea is the result of propaganda. That tool of US imperialism, the World Food Program (a UN organization) is merely extending those lies by providing food aid to North Korea: http://www.wfp.org/news/news-release/wfp-set-resu

      Since you don't seem to trust western media, here is a report from Xinhua, China's state-run newspaper, which reports a continuing shortfall of food production in North Korea: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-12/24/cont

      Hell, North Korea's own government statistics suggest that between 2.5 and 3 million people had died from famine as of 1999: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/281132.st

      • makes sense, but I'm not sure that it holds up against the North Korean news agency… the same one that said the North Koreans won the World Cup.

  9. I agree that China is a pivotal player in the NK scenario. There is a
    strong possibility that NK would not exist had it not been for China's
    intervention / support. I suspect that NK plays a role for China to advance it's presence on the world stage however any Chinese support for reforms will be contingent on what China perceives as its own long term best interests. These may not include stability in NK relations.

    The problem with economic engagement is that all parties have to at least appear to play by an agreed set of rules – not sure NK can be counted on to be consistent in this aspect, (with the possible exceptions of weapons purchases….).

    Canada is most certainly interested and involved. Isolationism has never worked and like it or not, we are in a global political economy.

  10. baah

  11. I say we do nothing…This guy hasn't posed a gravely serious threat yet…we should however keep an eye on this character

    franchise a business

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