What to do about Kim?

Sanctions, diplomacy, force—can anything sway the Dear Leader?
Michael Petrou with Patricia Treble
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.