By striving to avoid war, we risk stumbling right into one.
As tensions on the Korean peninsula continue to rise and the risks of a second Korean War grow ever greater, the debate on how to properly address the North Korean situation continues to rage. Despite the various ideas and concepts on how to rectify the situation, it seems that most experts agree that war is the most undesirable outcome. This is a reasonable conclusion, particularly given the possible human and material cost of a war with North Korea. However, in striving to avoid a conflict on the Korean peninsula, proponents of other approaches – such as sanctions and even engagement – seem unaware of the distinct risk of conflict even within these approaches. Indeed, the specter of war lurks within most possible solutions to the North Korean problem – so much so that, while there may be many of roads for North Korea policy going forward, many of those roads lead to conflict of some sort.
The fundamental flaw in most theories is the failure to follow “success” scenarios until their logical conclusion. Most often, scenarios proceed until North Korea “collapses” or changes its behavior – at which point the logic ends and the events that would likely take place after this point go un-analyzed. It is in this space that the specter of war often lurks.
The secondary flaw lies in the misunderstanding of how a war might or is most likely to erupt on the peninsula – more specifically, which side will start it and why. Though most seemed to believe that a North Korean attack on the South was the most likely scenario of war, this is not true and has not been true for decades. In fact, the opposite is true: not only is war more likely to be started by the ROK-US alliance, but that war is liable to start due to a perceived loss of command and control over North Korea’s WMD arsenal – a “collapse,” if you will. Moving forward, it is key to understand that a North Korean “collapse” – or a loss of command and control over WMDs – is very likely to result in military action from the ROK-US alliance. “Collapse” and “war” go hand in hand.
While the Moon administration insists on rekindling inter-Korean talks, it appears that the majority of the international community and North Korea experts have settled on sanctions and diplomatic pressure as the key tool to bring about change in North Korea. That being the case, we will use sanctions as our first example.
To quote the architect of US sanctions policy against North Korea, in terms of responding to sanctions, the Kim regime has two options: reform, or perish. Proponents of the sanctions method seem to take it as a given that the Kim regime would choose reform over perish. On the contrary, the Kim regime has very good reason not to reform. The North Korean leadership, both past and present, had a front row seat to the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent collapse of the entire Eastern European Communist Bloc. Through the famine and the struggle for political survival during the 1990s, the North Koreans have had ample time to examine why this collapse occurred and to ensure that a similar event never occurs in North Korea. The current North Korea system does not simply benefit from isolation, misinformation, ultra-nationalism, human rights abuses and the sort – it relies on them. These policies are critical pillars in the regime’s ability to survive and persist in the modern world. A North Korean regime that cannot stand on these pillars is a regime that is living on borrowed time and cannot last very long. To the North Koreans, reform is no different from regime change. As far as they are concerned, doing so could cause them to go the way of the Soviet Union, or worse, Ceausescu. In essence, expecting the Kim regime to actually significantly reform the system – of which nuclear weapons are a new supporting pillar – would be akin to expecting them to voluntarily shoot themselves in the femur.
This leaves the alternative option: perish. More specifically, “collapse,” civil and political unrest, and loss of accountability, command, and control over weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This can arise from a number of scenarios – from a grassroots uprising, to a bid for power by political or military elites. Regardless of the cause, it is at this point where the conversation becomes dangerous, particularly because North Korea is a country which possesses nuclear weapons, chemical and biological agents, and stockpiles of lethal conventional weaponry, all in addition to being a ticking humanitarian time bomb. In a number of ways, a collapsed or unstable North Korea is a catastrophe just waiting to happen – so much so, that a collapsed or unstable North Korea is exactly the scenario used when the US and South Korea engage in the yearly military exercises. Every year, the US and South Korea practice maneuvers aimed at seizing control of North Korea’s WMDs and stabilizing/securing the country, in the event of collapse or instability. In layman’s terms, this is war – a preventative war, even. In terms of operating procedures for the US-ROK alliance, a collapse in North Korea would be little different from an outright military strike tomorrow. In essence, “collapse” is a precursor to war – the execution of which the US-ROK alliance practices every single year.
This seems to be a fundamental flaw (or feature) in the logic behind sanctions, particularly as a means of avoiding war. War, by way of a collapsed North Korea, is a very possible (almost likely) outcome of sanctions and the ideal outcome of sanctions – wherein the Kim regime voluntarily and drastically changes its behavior – is akin to asking the regime to shoot itself in the foot. Of course, this is not to say that sanctions do not work. On the contrary, particularly according to high ranking defectors, they are and will continue to work. If anything, they are liable to work too well and lead to the result we strive so hard to avoid. The cruel irony for the North Koreans is that, even if they did abandon their weapons programs and open the country as the US, South Korea, China and others want, doing so would almost certainly lead to the end of the Kim regime as we know it, by way of political unrest and instability. Where we see reform and opening, the North Koreans see regime change. Such is the complicated picture of North Korea sanctions policy.
While sanctions is a good example of an underlying specter of war, it is not the only example. Engagement policy (specifically: engaging of the Kim regime & government) also carries this risk. As mentioned before, the Kim regime continues to survive in part because of a system of brutally oppressive policies – among which, misinformation and distortion of history are a significant part. The government retains legitimacy based in part upon a system of untruths it has created – such as that South Korea started the Korean war and that South Korea is poorer than North Korea. There is a reason why, despite multiple requests from South Korea, North Korea refuses to engage with a relatively friendly South Korean government. Among other reasons, a friendly South Korea offering aid to the (wealthier, more prosperous and powerful) North does not fit with the regime’s narrative. It threatens to undermine part of that system of supporting oppressive policies.
The principal goal of engagement policy appears to be to encourage change in the Kim regime by engaging in diplomatic and civilian exchanges, cooperation, and the sort. While otherwise reasonable, there are two fundamental flaws behind engagement policy: the assumption than it would work (re: that the regime would willingly shoot itself in the foot) and the assumption that, if it does work, it would turn out well. In actuality, as mentioned previously, the Kim regime has good reason to fear substantial reform and engagement would do little to change this fear. In fact, recent comments by high-ranking defector Ri Jong Ho suggested that the Kim regime regarded Sunshine era policies with great suspicion and as just another scheme to bring about regime change – so much so that, according to him, most aid went to the party and military. The fact of the matter is that, if the Kim regime attempts to reform in any substantial manner, the legitimacy of the current regime will collapse entirely, and the regime itself will likely follow. That collapse, almost by definition, will lead to intervention by US-ROK forces – again, this is war. War initiated by a different set of circumstances, but war nevertheless.
Thus, the problem here is twofold. Not only is the regime unlikely to respond to engagement policies in a desired manner but, if it did, there is a considerable chance that the resulting political and social instability will necessitate the very war that so many of us wish to avoid.
This is not to suggest that such policies should not be attempted. Rather, the key takeaway here is that even policies aimed at avoiding war on the peninsula can nevertheless lead right into a conflict of some sort. This is not necessarily due to any fault within those policies – they certainly mean well; however, the circumstances on the peninsula provide a less than ideal situation. In truth, despite common ideas to the contrary, the most likely way for war to begin again in Korea is not with a sudden North Korea attack. In fact, such an attack has never been likely – not since the end of North Korean military adventurism in the 1970s. Since then, the North Koreans, knowing the likely outcome, were not interested in starting a war. On the contrary, war on the Korean peninsula is most likely to emerge from one of two events: a preventative strike in response to North Korea nuclear and missile program, or a preventative strike in response to a collapsed or unstable North Korea – both of which would be carried out by the South Korea and the US. Efforts aimed at avoided war work specifically in opposition to the first scenario, but risk unexpectedly walking right into the second, wholly unprepared.
As tensions continue to rise on the peninsula, we must keep these factors in mind. We must consider strongly the potential and most likely outcomes of certain policies, not just the ideal outcomes. In doing so, we will inevitable learn that the situation with North Korea is more precarious than it looks. That being said, recognizing this now will give us more time to prepare for whatever is about to happen.