The U.S. is contemplating war with North Korea. Everyone, including the Trump administration, wants a non-military solution to the crisis. I want a billion dollars—does that mean I’ll get it?
Assassinating North Korean leader Kim Jong-un isn’t the answer. North Korea’s regime is not one man. Cut the head off of this snake and it will reveal itself to be a hydra. It is tempting to say, “Kill Kim and be done with it.” The problem is that if you kill Kim, whoever replaces Kim will push for a nuclear deterrent with just as much fervor, and with the passionate support of 25 million North Koreans.
Infiltrating North Korea is even harder. North Korea is the closest thing left to a totalitarian regime in the world. Churchill once said that dictatorship was a passing phase because authoritarian societies “cannot long endure if brought into contact with the healthy outside world.” North Korea has no such contact. Internet access is limited. Propaganda is everywhere. The international community thinks isolating North Korea is the answer, but North Korea wants to be isolated. It views foreign influences as inherently poisonous.
Economic sanctions, then, should do the trick, right? Think again. Twenty years of sanctions haven’t stopped North Korea and there’s no reason to think they will work now. This isn’t unique to North Korea: The Peterson Institute for International Economics determined in 2009 that historically, if the goal of sanctions was regime change, the success rate was a measly 30%. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a press conference on Tuesday that North Korea would just as soon “eat grass” as give up its nuclear weapons. He isn’t wrong. North Korea has starved its population for decades in dogmatic pursuit of defense from its enemies. Getting China to stop buying North Korean coal isn’t going to make Pyongyang bat an eyelash. Blocking oil is likely not the magic elixir to bring about Kim’s downfall.
What about China, though? China is North Korea’s last ally; one would think they must have some degree of leverage over Pyongyang. Threaten China with economic sanctions and surely it will bring North Korea to heel. It’s a good theory, but it rests on the faulty assumption that China has leverage over Pyongyang. The North Koreans don’t trust China any more than they trust Japan. Besides, China benefits from North Korea’s crazy antics. They give Beijing leverage with Washington. China wants stability and it overstates its influence in North Korea for effect. That isn’t the answer.
U.S. intelligence agencies don’t have particularly good track records when it comes to fixing these types of things. The Bay of Pigs invasion, when the U.S. tried to engineer the fall of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, was a disaster. We live in a world where people want easy solutions and instant gratification. This gives rise to “experts” who say they can fix all problems. But intelligence isn’t about 007s running around and solving everything. Intelligence is about gaining knowledge and knowing your enemy. The U.S. doesn’t understand its enemy, and that’s the North Korea problem in a nutshell.
North Korea wants to survive. It views a nuclear weapon as necessary for its survival. It has starved its people to achieve it. North Korea cannot be destroyed by killing one man, or by making speeches at the United Nations, or by isolating Pyongyang. North Korea thinks the U.S. is bluffing and won’t risk its treasure and the lives of its soldiers to stop North Korea from getting its nuke. The question, then, is whether North Korea understands its enemy. The rest is wishful thinking.
Jacob Shapiro is director of analysis at Geopolitical Futures.