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Commentary

What to Do About North Korea? Less Is More



The diametrically opposed styles of President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson never have been more on display than they recently have been on North Korea, which has been testing its nuclear weapons and missiles a lot lately. The bombastic Trump has spewed forth his usual bravado, bluntly asserting, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all that I am telling you.”

In contrast, the taciturn Tillerson’s comment on North Korea’s latest missile test was equally succinct and blunt, but much less macho, “North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.” Although neither man has much experience in international diplomacy, especially in tricky situations such as that posed by North Korea, Tillerson’s quiet approach is likely to bear the most fruit.

Although Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, appears to be even more mercurial and attention-seeking than his American counterpart, the way to best deal with him may be like a child having a tantrum—ignoring him denies him the notice he desperately seeks. At first, Kim would probably try to be even more obnoxious to try to steal back the gaze of the U.S. superpower and the world, but then would eventually attenuate aggressive behavior that isn’t achieving that goal.

Let’s face it, North Korea wants to play on the world stage, but doesn’t have much going for it. North Korea’s anachronistic and dysfunctional Communist economy results in its people starving. Having no spare cash, its diplomatic and cultural influence around the globe are next to nil. Even North Korea’s conventional military forces are large but antiquated. Thus, all this pathetic country can do to get attention is launch missile and nuclear tests or occasionally rattle its rusty saber with sporadic conventional military aggressiveness, such as shelling South Korean islands with artillery.

Nonetheless, the possibility that North Korea could eventually mate a powerful hydrogen bomb warhead with a missile having a range that could strike the United States is very real. In fact, some experts—including Admiral James A. Winnefield, Jr. (Ret.), former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Michael J. Morell, former deputy director of the CIA—argue the U.S. policy of trying stop North’s Korea’s nuclear and missile efforts have failed and should be abandoned. Even some of President Trump’s top advisors have asked whether the U.S. goal during past administrations of disarming North Korea is achievable now.

China has only limited incentive to pressure North Korea with severe economic sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs, because it fears a massive refugee flow across its border if the regime collapses. Perhaps as important, China fears a replay of what happened in Europe after the Cold War ended: East Germany was reunited with West Germany, and the hostile NATO alliance, including a united Germany, was expanded to Russia’s borders. China does not want a unified Korean powerhouse, allied with the United States, right on its border.

If China has only limited incentive to pressure North Korea, Kim Jong-un has almost no incentive to get rid of the only thing that makes the world care about North Korea. However, the paranoid regime doesn’t want nukes and missiles only for a vain power trip. Kim, without useable nuclear weapons or missiles, is scared that the same ignominious fate will befall him as it did Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Manuel Noriega, and Muammar Gaddafi (to name just a few), all of whom had no nuclear weapons.

The American government took military actions that ultimately ousted them all, including Gaddafi, who had given up his weapons of mass destruction programs and was playing ball with the United States. Kim merely has learned the same lesson as the Indian general who was asked what he learned from U.S. Operation Desert Storm in 1991; his answer: get nukes. Thusly, past American foreign policy has helped shape the incentives of North Korea and its somewhat reluctant ally China—unfortunately not in a good way.

But now we are where we are. The experts on North Korea, also long imbued with the false promise of American interventionism, are only finally coming around to see what has been obvious for a long time: North Korea is not going to play ball. Thus, the inexperienced Donald Trump’s macho talk may have painted himself into a corner. Instead, he needs to follow the lead of his secretary of state and shut down all official reaction to North Korean antics.

Contrary to President Trump’s rhetoric, the United States has the best nuclear arsenal on the planet, and it is certainly much larger and vastly more capable than any the destitute North Korea could ever muster. Every dictator’s first goal is to remain alive and in power—he can’t do that if his country has been wiped off the map by a superior nuclear force. Thus, nuclear deterrence worked for the United States during the Cold War against the much more potent nuclear-armed Soviet Union and Communist China, and it will likely work against even the “crazy like a fox” Kim Jong-un. Instead of ineffectual negotiations, bribery, sanctions, sabotage, and threats, giving the North Koreans all the attention they could ever ask for, quiet deterrence should have been U.S. policy all along. Tillerson may well understand Teddy Roosevelt’s famous dictum, “speak softly but carry a big stick,” but the blustering Trump doesn’t.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.


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