BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
The North Korean dictator is at it again. Kim Jong-un, the third Kim family member to hold absolute power in the North Korean psycho-state, has nuclear arms. He is perfecting them. The intelligence agencies (save for the Defense Intelligence Agency, which warned that the Kim regime might be able to miniaturize nuclear arms as far back as 2013) have missed the mark on North Korea for some time. This isn’t their fault: getting intelligence from North Korea is akin to trying to find life on Alpha Centauri (in fact, we might have better luck finding life on Alpha Centauri than acquiring actionable intelligence from North Korea). It’s referred to the Hermit Kingdom for a reason. Having actionable–and reliable–intelligence has never been more important…and it’s the one thing that we’ve not really had–not only in North Korea, but on almost every major national security threat we’ve faced for the last 17 years.
Many have argued that the United States must make a deal with the North Koreans, for we can ill-afford another, costly war–especially one that destabilizes such an important region as the Asia-Pacific. A conflict could also risk a wider war with the People’s Republic of China, which is both a benefactor to the North Korean regime and fears what might happen to their own national security in a post-Kim Jong-un North Korea.
Having said all of this, however, we mustn’t ignore these facts:
- Since 1994, North Korea has steadily acquired nuclear weapons in spite of robust economic incentives from the West meant to induce the North Koreans to abandon their regime’s quest for nuclear arms.
- Since 2006, the North Koreans have expanded their nuclear weapons arsenal.
- Since 2013, the North has possessed the ability to miniaturize their nuclear arms.
- Since 2016, the North has been developing intercontinental ballistic missile technology as well as perfecting their shorter-range missiles.
- It is believed that the North is experimenting with thermonuclear weapons.
- However, several nuclear experts in the scientific community disbelieve that Kim actually possesses that capability.
- Yet, given the nature of nuclear weapons, the fact that often the threat is more destabilizing than the actual effects of the weapon, and the fact that the North Koreans progressed from experimenting with rudimentary nuclear capabilities in 1994 to 12 years later, in 2006, having a basic arsenal, to 6 years later, having the ability to miniaturize nukes, it is likely that they will have some thermonuclear capability in 3-4 years, maximum.
- The DIA and other intel agencies predict a maximum of 18 months before the North manages to marry their nuclear capabilities with a working ICBM.
Even still, the dearth of intelligence means that the uncertainty surrounding more aggressive action in North Korea is prompting policymakers to restrain their more aggressive tendencies in the United States. There are also severe limitations on the American force as well as the U.S. economy. Further, our allies in the region, such as Japan and South Korea, are wearier of American overreaction to the North than the North’s provocations (to say nothing of our European allies, who want nothing to do with this crisis). These are the limiting factors to American freedom of action.
The United States is no longer the Superpower we were at the end of the Cold War. The post-Cold War “unipolar moment” has long passed (squandered in the deserts of the Middle East) and we have entered the instability of a multipolar world in which the United States remains the most powerful state, but that power is limited by other great powers. Thus, the failure of the Clinton Administration’s North Korea policy becomes all the clearer, since the United States could have resolved the problem that the Kim Regime poses the world with relative freedom of action.
We now have to listen to both our partners and rivals around the world when formulating a policy for countering the North Korean threat.
Many in the American intelligence community (IC) and the foreign policy establishment are advocating for a counterintuitive program of limited detente with the North. The IC wants more stable, open relations with the North because they want to gain access to North Korea for better intelligence-gathering. The State Department prefers diplomacy to military action as an institutional rule. For its part, the military inherently understands the limitations on its present force (it is woefully overstretched and unprepared for the kind of war that would be fought in North Korea). Meanwhile, following Rule of Acquisition #35, “Peace is Good For Business,” American economic policymakers and the international business community prefer open relations with North Korea for moneymaking opportunities (of course, Rule of Acquisition #34 states, “War is good for business,” but that’s another matter entirely).
So, there is a government-wide–bipartisan, even–resistance to force against North Korea.
As for intentions: there are six different states involved with North Korea and all six of them have varying intentions. They are:
- For the United States, denuclearization is the sine qua non of our policy toward North Korea.
- For North Korea, the Kim regime has viewed nuclear arms as essential to their regime’s continued survival.
- For China, they prize stability and prefer a weak-yet-stable North Korea to either a unified, democratic, and pro-American Korean peninsula–the Chinese like a North Korea that continues undermining American credibility in the region and does exclusive business with them.
- For Japan, they merely want stability and peaceable relations to prevail in Northern Asia.
- For South Korea, they share Japan’s goal and they prefer to use soft power to woo the North and wait the North Koreans out (they disbelieve that the Kim Regime’s continued reign is unsustainable and will collapse naturally, allowing for the South to safely reunite the peninsula).
- For Russia, they merely want to act as a spoiler for American power in the Pacific by supporting North Korea; the Russians also want to make up for any lost business between China and the North (by stepping in to temporarily replace the Chinese); the Russians also prefer stability, as the other interested parties (save for the United States) do, since Russia shares a small border with North Korea.
As you can see, the United States is fighting an uphill diplomatic battle. Our position is simply untenable in the context of the larger six-party interests. Of course, these calculations look logical on paper, and the solution seems apparent (i.e. make a deal with Kim Jong-un). But, one must account for the more unpredictable aspects of human nature that do not lend themselves to simple cost-benefit calculations.
Or, as David Hume once said:
“Interest and ambition, honour [sic] and shame, friendship and enmity, gratitude and revenge, are the prime movers in all public transactions, and these passions are of a very stubborn and intractable nature.”
For every claim that Kim Jong-un is a “rational actor,” the larger ideology of the North Korean regime is lost upon us. I have written extensively on the Juche ideology that pervades the North Korean psycho-state. North Korea is the ultimate cult of personality: the Kim family are gods among men whose divine will is predicated on restoring North Korean greatness. While Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, want to ensure his regime’s survival (the rational part), Kim Jong-un also has deep “daddy issues” (just as his father, Kim Jong-Il, had with the patriarch of the family, Kim Il-sung). Just as with Kim Jong-Il, the current dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, wants desperately to upstage his father (and grandfather). Kim Jong-un envisages a world where he not only cements his power at home, but he also vanquishes the scourge of disunity and foreign influence on the Korean peninsula.
Remember, the Kim Regime exists at the largesse of the People’s Republic of China. Yet, Kim Jong-un’s first act as dictator of North Korea was to brutally murder his uncle–his father’s consigliere and “China’s man” in the inner sanctum of North Korea’s government. This past February, Kim made headlines when he used a biological weapon in Malaysia to murder his own half-brother, who was under the protection Chinese state security services. Shortly after his half-brother’s assassination, Kim also murdered a cadre of senior military officers who were associated with China by incinerating them with heavy artillery fire.
Clearly, Kim is paranoid that his Chinese backers do not trust him to act rationally. The Chinese know Kim better than anyone and they clearly were looking at ways at either seriously restraining the young Kim or removing him, in order to replace him with a more predictable, stable leader. The fact that China is dragging their Communist jackboots on American efforts to denuclearize North Korea has less to do with their willingness to protect Kim Jong-un and more to do with their larger, geopolitical fears of an America that is resurgent in the Asia-Pacific–the region that China views as their exclusive sphere of interest.
Speaking of the irrational component of human nature, Thucydides, the father of history, said that:
“Overcome by three of the greatest things, honour, fear and profit, we have both accepted the dominion delivered us and refuse again to surrender it, we have therein done nothing to be wondered at nor beside the manner of men.”
There’s something more also: North Korea is key driver in what I’ve dubbed the “Nuclear Nexus.” The Kim Regime is a primary proliferator of illicit nuclear technology to fellow Rogue States, like the Islamic Republic of Iran. There has never been a North Korean nuclear test that Iranian scientists have not attended and studied, at the behest of the North Korean government. In 2007, the North Koreans had built a not-so-secret nuclear reactor in the desert of Syria, in which Iran’s long-time client, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, allowed Iran to use as a testing ground for their ongoing nuclear program–which precipitated Israel’s brilliant covert airstrike against that silly reactor.
Now, today, Iran is directing the ground defense of Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime in Syria (along with the Russians, who are providing air, intelligence, and special forces support for the Iranians). Not only are the Russians and other regional actors, such as Turkey, suborning the Iranian defense of Assad’s regime in Syria, but there are reports of a crack team of North Korean assassins operating alongside the Iranians in the Syrian Civil War. The relationship between North Korea and Iran is deep, incestuous, and unbreakable (with anything short of a regime change in either North Korea or Iran, something that most are unwilling to do–especially in the context of North Korea).
Therefore, any nuclear progress made in North Korea will ultimately be proliferated to Iran. This is yet another danger that Kim Jong-un’s continued existence as leader of North Korea poses to the world.
Merging together the psychological assessment of Kim Jong-un, the cultural underpinnings of Korea as the “Hermit Kingdom,” and the fact that North Korea is the mothership of nuclear proliferation, any potential agreement with North Korea that allows either Kim Jong-un to remain in power (and, therefore, to allow for the perpetuation of the North’s nuclear program), means that the United States–and the world–is made less safe and more unstable than it already is.
Taking these factors into account, I value the North Korean threat (on a scale ranging from LOW, MODERATE, HIGH to VERY HIGH) to American allies (Japan and South Korea) as VERY HIGH with their threat to the United States as HIGH. I value the North Korean threat to China as MODERATE. The threat to Russia is LOW.
My colleague, Saint-Cyr’s professor of geopolitics, Thomas Flichy de La Neuville, has argued that the United States cannot–and should not–go to war with North Korea. Earlier this week, former senior U.S. intelligence officials argued at a private gathering for a deal with North Korea. Most military and diplomatic leaders in the government–as well as crucial allies–are opposed to any military action against the North Korean regime. Given the uncertainty of the intelligence assessments (as well as the skepticism of several leading nuclear scientists, who disbelieve that the North has the exact weapons they claim they have), it is more than likely that, despite their bluster, President Donald Trump will proffer a nuclear deal with North Korea that Kim Jong-un will ultimately take (and subsequently undermine and ignore at his convenience).
The North’s obsession with acquiring greater levels of nuclear arms indicates that within 18 months, the United States will once again find itself brought to the brink by an increasingly nuclear weapons-capable North Korea. For, even though the West believes that Kim merely wants to survive as the King of Fools in the North, they misunderstand the intentions of the Juche ideology that undergirds the Kim Regime. Kim Jong-un does want to retain his hold on absolute power. He also does want to return Korea to its isolated status as the “hermit kingdom.” However, he only seeks to accomplish this second component after he has succeeded where both his grandfather and father failed: in uniting the Korean peninsula.
This is a critical juncture; 2017 truly represents the last–very short–off-ramp the United States has to rectify the North Korean situation in our favor, thereby preventing a nuclear breakout in North Korea, that leads to a nuclear attack on South Korea.
But, I gauge the likelihood of an American rapprochement of sorts with North Korea as high as 80%.
The United States must encourage Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to double-down on his efforts to militarize Japanese defense policy. Then, the U.S. should move nuclear forces into South Korea. At the same time, we must encourage both Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear arsenals. In the meantime, the United States must invest vast sums of money into rapidly developing and deploying space-based missile defenses. We have the technology and we have the abilities, but we have neither the political leadership nor the will (though the Trump Administration is the first administration to seriously look at space weaponization).
In the meanwhile, the United States should make clear to both the Chinese and Russians that if the North Koreans attempt to test another rocket, American military action is all but assured. The United States will also enact severe protectionist measures against the Chinese and Russians. Also, if the Chinese refuse to take the lead in removing the Kim Regime before they officially have a working ICBM, then the United States will not only lead the war against him, but they will also ensure that a united Korean peninsula is created under Seoul’s leadership, and that permanent American military presence is established right across from the Yalu River.
The Trump Administration should offer a way out for the Chinese: using their closer ties with the North, the Chinese should give us the detailed locations where Kim Jong-un hides. We have the world’s most capable special forces teams (as well as a robust surveillance and drone capability, to say nothing of covert airpower). We will insert covert elements, based on actionable Chinese intelligence, to assassinate Kim Jong-un. Rather than the United States moving its forces–along with the South Korean military forces–into the North to stabilize it, the Chinese will deploy their military into the North. The Chinese, not the United States, will choose the next leader of the North, and the North and South will remain bifurcated, but the North will have more stable leadership.
At that point, the North can open up to the world on some level and trade can be conducted. This is the way forward. But, a nuclear North Korea is simply unacceptable.
I value the probability of my plan having a 10-20% likelihood of being enacted. If I were a betting man, I’d say that the Trump Administration will make a deal with Kim Jong-un and that in 18 months, we’ll be staring down another, truly existential nuclear crisis with North Korea. We’ve kicked the ball down the field so much that now we’re kicking the ball into the stands–and people are going to get hurt. One way or the other, though, the game will end.