North Korea is not a state sponsor of terrorism.

To put NK back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism is to continue the tendency of the US to deem all undesirable behavior as terroristic. It turns the word into a political tool and divorced from reality.  Terrorism is a serious issue and should be taken seriously, but not all violence, or in the situation of NK, diplomatic disagreements, fall under the umbrella of terrorism. To use the term in such a sloppy and haphazard ways only serves to make the term in the long run meaningless and to further chart a path for the central government accumulating more power.

For a good write up regarding NK and terrorism, see Micah Zenko’s 2014 writing in Foreign Policy.

 

Is North Korean antagonism rational?

Nearly every serious thinker agrees that the North Korean ownership of nuclear weapons is rational. Rational in the sense that, like any other regime, the primary goal of the North Korean leadership is survival. Yet, unlike other regimes, the North Koreans have an immediate and capable threat at their doorstep. For the past 64 years, North Korea has had to discourage an invasion of an American military stationed directly at its southern border. Nuclear weapons are widely acknowledged as the most efficient and perhaps the only way of doing this.

The logic is pretty straightforward. When nuclear weapons are introduced to the bargaining process, victory becomes so costly that both sides are deterred from waging conflict, let alone pursuing regime change. This is because both sides are vulnerable to a nuclear strike, regardless of what happens on the battlefield. If a state has second strike capability then it doesn’t matter how disadvantaged they are in traditional military metrics as nuclear weapons neutralize any gains earned on the battlefield. As highly desirable it would be to dispose of the Kim regime and reunite the peninsula, the potential death of 200,000 South Korean civilians has, at least for now, been enough to deter American military action.

The issue, however, isn’t if North Korean ownership of nuclear weapons is rational. We all recognize that it is given their environment. The issue is whether those in Pyongyang abide by the rules of mutually agreed destruction. North Korean foreign policy very often appears to be a reflection of the personality of its leader. Both in rhetoric and action, North Korea can appear to be unpredictable and irrational. In the words of Nikki Haley, North Korean seems to be “begging for war.” On a fairly routine basis, the North Koreans threaten the United States and its regional allies. Japan was threatened with nuclear clouds.  The United States would be turned into “a sea of fire.” Even Guam was threatened with a “salvo or misses.” Even more provactivley, North Korea has on several occasions initiated conflict, sending missiles over Japan, sinking the South Korean Cheonan, and firing artillery shells at Baengnyeong Island in 2010.

If war with the United States would be suicidal for North Korea, why do they constantly antagonize? After all, nuclear weapons were attained to ensure the survival of the regime, not lead to its end. I would argue that the belligerent and at times erratic behavior of North Korea is in fact rational. In order for nuclear weapons to be an effective deterrent, a state has to convince others that they would indeed use them, despite it being suicidal. This is one of the great ironies of nuclear weapons as their unprecedented destructive power result in a loss of credibility. Prior to nuclear weapons, war was once a normal instrument of coercive diplomacy and the threat to use it could pressure others to bend politically. But in the era of mutual vulnerability, the second strike capability of your opponent makes the bargaining leverage of nuclear weapons futile. How serious of a threat are nuclear weapons if they ensure the death of the regime that would in fact launch them? A regime would have to be crazy to be the first to use them as they would be signing their death certificate. That is, unless, it was part of a strategy to convince an opponent to take their nuclear capability seriously.

Putting the North Korean belligerence in perspective is important because nuclear weapons do not make war impossible, no matter how catastrophic it would be. The United States has invested a lot of its reputation in resolving the Korean issue and there are audience costs. It is not entirely implausible to imagine a scenario that the United States tie its hands publically by drawing a line in the sand only to see North Korea cross it and escalate an already tense situation. Trump has already stated that his administration will never let North Korea advance their nuclear program to the point that they can harness an intercontinental missile with a nuclear weapon. Military action could be used to retard such progress creating a spiral until a nuclear strike is employed.

North Korea isn’t crazy. Despite North Korea “begging for war,” it’s the last thing they want. The United States should recognize that North Korea is stuck in the situation of having to defend itself by convincing the United States that it is willing to commit suicide. How exactly does a state coerce an opponent by threatening to kill itself? I assume the only way to do that is to appear unhinged and impetuous. The alternative interpretation of North Korean behavior is that their grand strategy has been to endure 20 plus years of sanctions and international isolation in pursuit of an end goal of self-destruction.

Good overview of the diplomatic nuances of the North Korea situation.

Here is one bit.

Number three, we have to work as closely as we possibly can with China in particular to work toward more of a coordinated strategy. The game we have played with China, and that China plays with us, is that we always tell China, “You could bring these guys to heel; if you really, really wanted to do it, you could.” The Chinese will say, “You Americans, you’re the threat to them,” and so on. We blame one another — that creates running room for North Korea.

You can read the rest here.

Forget Diplomacy With North Korea if Trump Decertifies the Iran Deal

While the deal with Iran is not directly tied to any prospective talks with North Korea, how the administration handles the Iran deal will set the broader environment for any talks with North Korea. On a basic level, it will signal that the United States is not a reliable negotiating partner. The United States would not be abrogating the agreement with Iran because Tehran was not living up to its end of the agreement, but rather because the United States was not satisfied with Iran’s policies on other matters that were not related to JCPOA. Instead of choosing to engage Iran to resolve concerns over the regime’s support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, the release of Americans in Iranian prisons, and its ballistic missile program, the United States would be leveraging the current deal to resolve these issues.

You can read the rest here.

BBC interview with North Korean Diplomat

They are not Iran. They have no ideology they want to export.

They want the regime to survive.

As Vice-Foreign Minister Han made clear to me, North Korea has learned the lessons from recent history, in particular the US-led attempts at regime change in Iraq and Libya.

 

“If the balance of power is not there, then the outbreak of war is imminent and unavoidable.”

 

“If one side has nukes and the other side doesn’t, and they’re on bad terms, war will inevitably break out,” he said.

 

“This is the lesson shown by the reality of the countries in the Middle East, including Libya and Syria where people are suffering from great misfortune.”

I’m not defending the regime (they aren’t the sort of government I want to be ruled by) yet if America does want to fix this issue it should address it’s post-cold war foreign policy first, NK foreign policy second.

From a third party view, NK foreign policy appears to be rational.

You can read the rest here.

Background on Policy Options for a Nuclear North Korea.

With the end of “strategic patience,” I wanted to direct attention to Doug Bandow’s recent work on the North Korea problem. Nothing about the paper is libertarian (I think the stock libertarian response would be that a nuclear North Korea is either 1) rational NK policy to preserve the regime or 2) none of America’s business) but the paper is the one of the best introductions to how complicated the situation is.

Below is the introduction. A longer read but it is so well written you can get through it within one sitting.

Northeast Asia is perhaps the world’s most dangerous flashpoint, with three neighboring nuclear powers, one the highly unpredictable and confrontational North Korea. For nearly a quarter century the United States has alternated between engagement and containment in attempting to prevent Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons.

 

Unfortunately, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has accelerated its nuclear and missile programs since Kim Jong-un took power in December 2011. Washington has responded with both bilateral and multilateral sanctions, but they appear to have only strengthened the Kim regime’s determination to develop a sizeable nuclear arsenal. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has grown increasingly frustrated with its nominal ally, but the PRC continues to provide the DPRK with regime-sustaining energy and food aid.

 

The United States and South Korea, in turn, have grown frustrated with Beijing, which is widely seen as the solution to the North Korea problem. However, the Obama administration’s approach has generally been to lecture the PRC, insisting that it follow American priorities. Unsurprisingly, successive Chinese leaders have balked.

 

China does possess an unusual degree of influence in Pyongyang, but Beijing fears an unstable DPRK more than a nuclear DPRK. From China’s standpoint, the possible consequences of a North Korean collapse—loose nukes, mass refugee flows, conflict spilling over its border— could be high. The Chinese leadership also blames Washington for creating a threatening security environment that discourages North Korean denuclearization.

 

Thus, the United States should change tactics. Instead of attempting to dictate, the United States must persuade the Chinese leadership that it is in the PRC’s interest to assist America and U.S. allies. That requires addressing China’s concerns by, for instance, more effectively engaging the North with a peace offer, offering to ameliorate the costs of a North Korean collapse to Beijing, and providing credible assurances that Washington would not turn a united Korea into another U.S. military outpost directed at the PRC’s containment.

 

Such a diplomatic initiative still would face strong resistance in Beijing. But it may be the best alternative available.