How North Korea outplayed the Americans

This may be a bitter pill for American diplomats to swallow, but astute global watchers are realizing something that will have dramatic consequences for the world: the North Koreans are handily outplaying the U.S. and will likely up-end the regional balance of power dramatically, probably in the next twelve to eighteen months.

How did this happen? How did an isolated, brutal, repressive regime become so powerful so quickly? And what is the world going to do about it?

Busan Tower, Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Hoil Ryu on Unsplash

Busan Tower, Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Hoil Ryu on Unsplash

First, it is important to put away the the moral finger-wagging. Brutal, repressive regimes are often quite powerful and often become so very quickly. Whether people like the North Korean regime is entirely besides the point. In fact, the focus on the finger-wagging by American politicians has been a tremendous handicap to actually solving the very real and growing political crisis on the Korean peninsula.

Second, it is abundantly clear that the North Koreans have survived because they have refused to play ball with the Americans. Unlike Iraq, Libya and Syria, North Korea went forward with an aggressive nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, almost immediately after being labeled as part of the American "axis of evil" in 2002 by then President George W. Bush. The result is that North Korea is far more powerful today than it was in 2002. 

Third, it is time for diplomats to just wake up. Military options are completely out of the question, and everyone knows it. That's what makes U.S. threats increasingly hollow, and pointless. A war in the Korean peninsula will kill millions of people, and if it goes nuclear, it will start World War III. The assassination of Kim Jong-Nam in Malaysia with a VX nerve agent was a conspicuous warning to the world that North Korea is willing to use targeted killings, even involving the use of highly banned chemical agents. You can bet that North Korea has several plans in place to assassinate and terrorize civilian populations in the event of the outbreak of war.

The real losers here are civilians -- Korean civilians, American civilians, even European civilians (although Europe will probably avoid significant fallout, literally and figuratively, if the Korean peninsula goes hot). Kim Jong Un probably won't hesitate to risk the lives of millions to save his regime. What the U.S. government will do in this situation is an open question. There is no military solution here that doesn't involve the real loss of American lives, maybe even tens of thousands of American lives. Keep in mind that the last Korean War, fought at at time when the U.S. was far more powerful than North Korea by several orders of magnitude, ended in stalemate.

In the "realist" school of international relations, diplomats focus on analyzing state power to discern the interests of governments. Well, North Korea is actually a pretty powerful country now. It is ruled by a strong-man with an iron grip on power, and its citizens appear to be brainlessly loyal or subservient to the regime, thus avoiding any chance of a coup or domestic uprising. It doesn't appear to be going anywhere. It only appears to be getting stronger.

The solution? The broad strokes are easy, the details are difficult. Broadly, the U.S. needs to push for disarmament in the region, and disarmament more globally. Get rid of nuclear weapons from the peninsula. Put in place actual enforcement mechanisms. Second, the U.S. needs to let the Koreas resolve the Korean war. This may result in a Korean peninsula that isn't completely tied to U.S. interests. But it's the only way to resolve the crisis. Only by letting go can the U.S. achieve better security in the region. The more the U.S. grasps onto South Korea, the greater the North Korean threat. An independent but largely stable Korea is much better for the U.S. than the current situation. Otherwise, it's just a matter of time before things go boom.