The United States’ goals in North Korea sometimes confuse the international audience. However, the current objective is clear: remove all nuclear weapons and proliferation capability from North Korea. It’s that simple. Secretary Tillerson provided what was sorely missing, clarity of purpose. North Korea can continue to be international pariahs, so long as they do not have nuclear weapons, or proliferate nuclear weapons, or proliferate nuclear technology. It is the nukes that present the problem. The goal is to eliminate the nuclear program, not slow down or halt, but eliminate.
The US can either forcibly remove the entire program, or North Korea can choose to remove it. This is not new ground. Several nations have voluntarily removed a nuclear capability, while others have chosen NOT to build a capability even though they have the means to do so. Brazil and Sweden can build nukes, but they chose not to because they do not need them. The addition of nuclear weapons does not help their strategic situation. The same is not true of North Korea. They do need nuclear weapons, therefore convincing or coercing them to remove the capability is no simple task. As I mentioned before, deterrence exists in the mind. However, this is more than nuclear deterrence, this is nuclear coercion. So the question is, how does the United States get North Korea to choose the nuclear-free pathway? By holding at risk something they value more than a nuclear weapon capability, their very survival.
North Korea values survival of the regime above all else. They believe they cannot survive for very long without nuclear weapons. Those nukes are what provide the security and respect of being treated as an international equal. Without the nukes, they could be brushed aside. Therefore the strategic situation is one where North Korea having nuclear weapons is unacceptable to the international community, but at the same time required for North Korea.
In order to eliminate nuclear threats in North Korea without military force, the United States must provide a pathway for survival for North Korea, absent the nukes. The US must show them they can survive and be treated as international peers without nuclear weapons. To pull this off, the US must also convince North Korea its very survival is at stake if it chooses to continue down this nuclear path.
This is also, not a new idea. The US has been in this situation before… with Cuba.
The Korean Missile Crisis?
When the US found Soviet missiles in Cuba, the US demanded they be dismantled and then initiated what was in effect, a blockade of the island. This is similar to the US calls for nuclear compliance in North Korea with the associated economic sanctions filling in as an ‘economic blockade.’ While the stakes are not as high in North Korea, they are nuclear related and significant. The Cuba threat aimed directly at the US heartland, and North Korea cannot project that type of power. This is why the US can ‘slow down’ the North Korean situation while the Cuban crisis was much more direct.
When these actions did not produce the desired results in Cuba, the US ramped up its readiness and prepared for war in a very public way. There was little debate the US was going to remove the missiles by force if the Soviets did not remove them by choice. It was suggested the Soviets would remove the missiles, but only if the US made a promise never to invade Cuba. The Soviets feared regime change in Cuba more than the loss of their military capability. North Korea operates in a similar manner. They value survival of the regime. China operates the same way as well, valuing North Korean survival as a strategic and physical buffer. In the modern scenario, China is the Soviet Union and North Korea is Cuba. If the US were to provide a similar promise never to initiate regime change so long as North Korea did not seek nuclear weapons, it is possible North Korea will choose that path. Which is why Secretary Tillerson gave North Korea that very option today. He also sweetened the deal by offering to continue an aide program once the weapons program is dismantled.
Since 1995, the U.S. has provided 1.3 billion in aide to North Korea, and we look forward to resuming our contributions once [the country] dismantles weapons programs. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, April 28, 2017
Just as the Soviet Union was the lever for actions in Cuba, China is the lever for actions in North Korea. This lever must be applied to China in a very specific way, on two fronts. The first is economic. 90% of North Korea’s international trade is through China. Establishing economic sanctions against North Korea is useless unless China does it. Only China can hurt North Korea’s bank account. The second method is military. The US must continue to act in a very public manner concerning its military preparations to forcibly remove the nuclear and missile threat in North Korea. The US has to convince the world in general, and China in particular, force will be used if North Korea does not comply. Again, Secretary Tillerson voiced these exact words at the United Nations today.
The similarities between today’s issues in North Korea and yesterday’s Cuban Missile Crisis are usually lost because of the timeline and severity. In 1962, the survival of the human race was at stake. Today, it is not that intense. North Korea does not directly threated the US. China does not pose an existential threat. In 1962, the entire event played out over 13 very tense days. Today is just another day in a 25 year struggle with North Korea and nuclear weapons. If there was a direct time comparison, today is the day Kennedy gave his blockade speech, where the US position was solidified with clarity of purpose.
The Myth of Regime Change
Some people continuously talk about regime change in North Korea. While strategically, that is an admirable goal, voicing it reduces options and degrades deterrence. As stated earlier, North Korea values survival of the regime above all things. There is nothing they value more, therefore there is no way to deter them from seeking survival. If the US were to explicitly state regime change in North Korea is the only acceptable solution, it will create a situation that MUST result in war. The US will lose the ability to deter or coerce any North Korean action.
This is why regime change is a bad idea. Those who understand how deterrence and coercion work, will continuously voice this. Regime change in North Korea is a bad idea. Those who believe North Korea should just do what we say, ‘or else,’ do not comprehend this situation.
Our goal is not regime change. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, April 28, 2017
The Path Forward
North Korea controls the next move. They can take positive steps to avert military confrontation, or they can detonate another nuclear test. They can openly negotiate, or they can build and test a missile that can reach North America. They can partake show they deserve to be treated as a respectable nation, or they can put a nuclear weapon in orbit. One way will allow North Korea to survive, the other will result in resumption of the Korean War. However, China can force their hand with the kind of pressure the US is not capable of providing.
China will not roll over gently. They must save face somehow. China’s goal in this is to retain their strategic and physical buffer. Regime change in North Korea under US control would be disastrous for China. Therefore, expect China to oppose the United States at every turn while simultaneously calling for calm and talk. China will attempt to slow this way down to an almost glacial pace. China will eventually offer to host direct talks between the key players. But China will also undermine US military efforts where possible. They may station Peoples Liberation Army forces at key North Korean military and nuclear facilities. They may put their brand new, homemade Aircraft Carrier in the East China Sea or Yellow Sea. They may probe cyber defenses in South Korea and Japan. They may stage joint exercises with North Korea, and they may even execute a nuclear test of their own. But make no mistake, China will not initiate World War III for North Korea. China is invested, but they are not stupid. While North Korea has the next move, and China is the lever, the US has the trump card, literally and figuratively.
The United States will continue to attack this issue with a dogged determinism. They will voice no public redlines, not after the public lashing President Obama took in Syria, but Trump will establish those redlines none the less. I believe President Trump has already determined three unacceptable situations where he will authorize military action: (1) a nuclear detonation, (2) a demonstrated missile test that can reach North America, or (3) a nuclear weapon placed in orbit. None of those are acceptable, and any one will cause military action. To demonstrate the US commitment to military action, expect to see public deployments to the Pacific Theater, similar to the USS Carl Vinson. US strategic bombers will be regular players over the DMZ in the coming weeks. B‑2 bombers may make an appearance in Guam, perhaps with F‑35 and F‑22 friends. Large scale, joint exercises with South Korea and Japan will be more public. Secretary Tillerson offered the North Koreans a way to survive, but if Kim does not take it, Trump will fix it. I know he just got here, but President Trump has overextended himself on this issue and cannot face another election without its resolution. He will undergo military action if necessary.
 In the end, the Soviets required a bit more than just a promise. It took the promise of removing Jupiter missiles from Turkey to seal the deal. In the present case, neither North Korea nor China have the juice to demand removal of US forces from the area nor does the US have the wherewithal to do so.
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