The North Korean conflict is all so predictable. Everybody claims to have the solution. If you ask the political left, their solution is to have talks with North Korea, and hope that diplomacy will work its magic. Bill Clinton tried that and it didn’t work.
The right on the other hand says “Enough with appeasement”, time to confront North Korea before we get another Neville Chamberlain moment “Peace for our time”. Trump and neocons think they can simply twist North Koreas arm to give up nuclear weapons.
I’d say both sides are wrong. Neither approach is going to work. Diplomacy is never going to make North Korea give up nuclear weapons as the regime firmly believes the US is a threat to their existence. They have seen how the US invaded Iraq. They know as well as everybody else, that the only reason they have not been invaded yet is because they are holding a gun to South Koreas head.
As Huffington Post elaborates:
Burrowed into hard granite mountain faces and protected behind blast doors, 15,000 North Korean cannons and rocket launchers are aimed at the glass skyscrapers, traffic-choked highways and blocks of apartment buildings 35 miles away in Seoul ― and the U.S. military bases beyond.
In a matter of minutes, these heavy, low-tech weapons could begin the destruction of the South Korean capital with blizzards of glass shards, collapsed buildings and massive casualties that would decimate this vibrant U.S. ally and send shock waves through the global economy.
Combined with the likely ability to nuke South Korea, there is no safe way solve the North Korean problem militarily. The casualties will be enormous and it will send shock waves through the whole world economy and threaten to destabilize the political situation in the area. With two major powers, both with nukes Russia and China, nearby, this is a really poor choice.
The Third Way
Despite this, nobody seems to ever utter the blindingly obvious.
There is no acceptable way to get North Korea to give up its Nukes. We simply have the learn to live with it.
Containment is a failed policy. It has pretty much never worked. More than 50 years of sanctions against Cuba, never accomplished anything. Nor did sanctions against Iraq, nor have they managed to do so in North Korea. Sanctions is a cheap symbolic policy. It makes us feel good about apparently doing something. Reality is that it accomplishes nothing. In fact most experience suggests it does the complete opposite. Sanctions seem to strengthen regimes, not weaken them.
What actually weakens dictatorships is economic development. Rich prosperous nations seldom manage to stay too oppressive. North Korea is already on a path reforming along the same lines as China in the 80s, introducing more market reforms. Already there are signs that this is weakening the regime’s hold on power.
The best way to reduce the threat from North Korea would hence be to accelerate this development. Give them a chance to trade and prosper and encourage further economic reforms. Over time this will weaken the power of the dictatorship. More business and trade means more foreign ideas and influence.
Sanctions has the adverse affect of sealing the country of from any alternative ideas and views from those of the regime.
In many ways our handling of North Korea reminds me of the handling of illegal drugs. We don’t want to accept that the war on drugs can’t be won. We don’t want to accept that a dangerous substance that ruin people’s lives can’t be banned. We hold on to this idea even though evidence from all over the world suggest legalization is the best way to go. It doesn’t rid the world of the problems with addiction. But it rids the world of much of the organized crime which follows in the footsteps of illegal drugs.
We can’t eliminate the threat of a nuclear powered North Korea. That is unfortunate. However we can eliminate the constant crisis which emerges from persistent attempts at getting North Korea off nuclear weapons.
Sometimes one has to accept that the cure is worse than the disease.