What Should the U.S. do About North Korea?

By Michael Kay | USA

After the president’s tweets about North Korea on January 2nd, there has been much controversy as to how the president should handle the issue. Many believe that the provocative tweets may be an attempt to intimidate or outmaneuver Kim Jong Un, while others believe that it may simply be a president who has lost his mind. This article will ignore the latest set of tweets (and the potential political harms or gains that might follow as a result) and will analyze the two main courses that the United State’s foreign policy objective might follow.

The first potential course of action is, of course, a standoff. Should Kim Jong Un continue to oppose the United States and their interests, and threaten allies such as South Korea and Japan, it would only make sense for America to confront NK and this could prompt the war. The preamble to such an event would be simply following the current course that we are set upon. There may be hope in the prospect of NK going to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, which could potentially lead to improved relations, but short of that, it seems as though Trump plans to isolate the dictator and play potentially the deadliest waiting game in the past decade.

The second (and hopefully more likely) option is to legitimize Kim Jong Un. What’s important to understand about many isolated, demonized dictators, is that one of their main objectives is for the world to recognize them, to legitimize them. We see this in cases such as with Vladimir Putin, with the Ukraine crisis, in which President Obama chose to start by imposing strict sanctions, then proceeding down the logical diplomatic path of establishing meetings with Putin, and gradually increasing sanctions. There was no effect whatsoever because dictators aren’t the ones directly hurt by economic sanctions. The greatest harm you might do to the dictator himself is to destabilize the entire country by causing starvation and unrest. Not only is this incredibly inhumane, it is also highly inefficient as it can take a very long time (for people to really turn on the dictator), and you run the risk that the dictator will simply ignore his people. However, after attempting this method for some time, the Obama administration decided to change its tactic. It proceeded to remove Russia from the G8 and to maintain the sanctions. Within a fairly short period of time, Russia agreed to come to the negotiating table, and agree to a ceasefire (during negotiations). The reason that this strategy was more successful is that rather than attempting to challenge the country on a whole, it challenged Putin’s legitimacy as a leader, by removing him from a body which signifies economic greatness.

The same logic can be used when examining some of Kim Jong Un’s decisions. For example, the constant nuclear tests serve a dual purpose. First, they threaten potential enemies which can be looked at as a system of preemptive deterrence. Second (and potentially more relevantly), they aim to prove that Kim Jong Un is powerful, and a “real” leader. However, we’ve already ostracized North Korea, so the strategy that may be required would be somewhat different, in that it would have to be a carrot on a stick approach. The US could offer North Korea a spot at the Olympics (of course the rest of the global community would have to agree), in exchange for a small concession, for example, the signing of an official end to the Korean War. This may seem meaningless, but its significance is that it means that the US would stop sending troops, and weapons to the Korean Peninsula. This, in turn, would make Kim Jong Un feel somewhat safer and would reduce the need for a nuclear deterrent, meaning the stoppage (or at least reduction in frequency) of the nuclear tests. Afterwards, the US could trade a stop at the WTO, development aid, or a trade agreement for further concessions such as an agreement to refrain from weaponizing Uranium. If Kim Jong Un feels as though he has a seat at the table, he is less likely to try and blow the table up. Giving Kim Jong Un the illusion of a spot at the table isn’t all that difficult, or costly, as the vast majority of the concessions that would be made by the US would be political ones, rather than monetary.

The current US strategy to counter North Korea is highly ineffective and very dangerous. Trump should change the tactic to one in which North Korea would eventually become assimilated into the global community. It will be an uphill battle, and a very dangerous one, but the alternative is far more dangerous, with no potential for a “happy” ending.