Since the beginning of 2017, North Korea has carried out 15 missile tests, firing weapons that span from short-range ballistic missiles to intercontinental ballistic missiles, more widely referred to as ICBMs. The international community interprets these tests as growing displays of dominance, in an attempt to both pose a menacing threat abroad and foster legitimacy within the North Korean domestic sphere. David Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, articulated a list of vital assumptions about the nature of the Kim family regime and its objectives, which provide the basis for the policy maneuvers suggested by resident Korea experts. Maxwell states, “The only way we are going to see an end to the nuclear program and threats and to the crimes against humanity being committed against the Korean people living in the north by the mafia-like crime family cult known as the Kim family regime is through achievement of unification and the establishment of a United Republic of Korea that is secure and stable, non nuclear, economically vibrant, and unified under a liberal constitutional form of government determined by the Korean people.” In line with Maxwell’s conception of an ideal Korea, denuclearization, while crucial, must not threaten prospects of future reunification.
Especially as nuclear threats from the Kim Regime weigh heavily on the current geopolitical climate, desired end states for the Korean peninsula begin to organize into two distinct timeframes: the short-term goal of easing the growing threats of attack, nuclear or otherwise, from the North, and the long-term end of a stabilized, entirely denuclearized, unified Republic of Korea. The key to the achievement of both is maintaining a united international front so that attainment of the short-term end of deterrence does not jeopardize the long-term end of complete reunification. By extension, all of the international attention begs the question, just how powerful is North Korea, anyway?
When one discounts incendiary rhetoric and domestic propaganda, not very. Corruption abounds, and the already-impoverished population is subject to perpetual human rights violations and a constant stream of propaganda, effectively cut off from the rest of the world in an effort by the Kim family regime to perpetuate its illusion of omnipotence. In recent years, covert social unrest and resistance movements have gained ground; the number of defectors has increased greatly, and those defectors have begun smuggling information across the border in substantial volumes in an effort to provide North Koreans with international media. Younger generations, the greatest market for the contraband intellectual property, have been given a taste of the world outside of the walls that have been constructed around them; as a result, they are becoming increasingly—albeit quietly—disloyal. All of this points towards a slowly-crumbling regime, adding credibility to the idea that reunification potentially looms on the horizon. The nuclear front may be the Kim regime’s last avenue for establishing legitimacy and longevity; however, if maneuvered correctly, it could, in turn, spell the regime’s demise.
Early in September, the UN security council met to deliberate the best course of action in response to North Korea’s continued development of a fortified nuclear program. The agreed-upon sanctions range from banning North Korean textiles to caps on the natural gas and fossil fuel industries, effectively prohibiting the consumption of 90% of reported North Korean exports, a measure estimated to reduce the nation’s already-struggling national income by an additional $1.3 billion. Important to note is that “reported exports” marks a key phrase in this discussion: black and gray market trading of goods bolsters much of the revenue of the North Korean economy; the effect of the sanctions on these markets will likely prove difficult to discern.
While the Security Council did not ultimately adopt a policy enforcing the degree of punitive actions lobbied for by the U.S.—due to the interests and threat of veto from China and Russia—rhetoric within the U.S. has continued to escalate, in an effort to match the tone of the threats coming from the North. In April of 2017, Vice President Mike Pence announced, “an end of the era of strategic patience,” which guided U.S. Korea policy for the better part of the last decade. Strategic patience strategy primarily involved a wait-and-see policy of (comparatively) light sanctions and calculated defense maneuvers, executed in the hope of forcing negotiations with the regime. In this vein, James Mattis, Secretary of Defense, confirmed the new era of U.S. foreign policy towards the Kim regime in a statement given on September 3rd, stating, “Any threat to the United States or its territories including Guam or our allies will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming.” In his statement, Mattis constructed a clear set of actions that would invoke a response; in order to further mitigate tensions, the bellicose rhetoric must stop here, lest the United States be inadvertently backed into a war of proportions desired by none of the parties involved. In order to avoid a conflict of means, the international community must see beyond rhetoric, and its response must remain united and powerful. The international community must carry out said response without the use of direct military force. Returning to Maxwell’s remarks, forcing regime instability will cause resistance from China, who will do everything in its power to avoid a potential refugee crisis on its border, ultimately cultivating disunity within the Security Council. The UN sanctions enacted in September seem to be a step in the right direction as far as placing adequate pressure on the regime while maintaining a consistent, clear message; although the United States has officially abandoned the “wait-and-see” policy, that may be all that is left to do in the interim. Crucial to the success of the measure is a restrained reaction to North Korean rhetoric on the part of the White House: one that, given the culture of the administration, may not be offered in the foreseeable future.