Professor Madhav Das Nalapat, UNESCO Peace Chair, Manipal University, India
International Forum on One Korea 2017 – Seoul, Korea
December 7, 2017
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) under Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un is making steady progress towards operationalizing its capabilities as a nuclear weapons power capable of delivering thermonuclear payloads to the west coast of the United States. The estimate offered in this assessment is that the Kim regime is at most 30 months away from such an outcome. The optimum time for military action designed to eliminate the DPRK’s nuclear program was during the George W. Bush administration, but except for ineffective gestures and heated rhetoric, no action was taken that would have reversed progress in the North Korean effort to become a full scope nuclear threat to the U.S. homeland. During World War II, President Roosevelt joined hands with Marshal Stalin and Prime Minister Churchill to confront and defeat another “Axis of Evil,” Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Hideki Tojo. During the first six years of his two-term administration, the chance was lost for taking military action against the DPRK that would have been accompanied with very low loss of life across the 38th Parallel.
During the first two years of the 8-year Barack Obama administration, the opportunity was missed for a similar assault on the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ever since those dates, the extent of collateral damage caused to allies as a consequence of any full scope military attack on North Korea or Iran has been rising, such that in both cases, the extent of loss of life as well as physical assets would during the present time reach two hundred thousand at a minimum in lives snuffed out or gravely injured, and more than U.S. $1 trillion in assets lost as a consequence of retaliation by Iran or the DPRK. These numbers would rise every month that such an attack gets postponed.
While in the case of Iran, by 2015, the impact of a war by the U.S. and its allies against that country would so devastate the region that the global economy would enter a period of chaos unprecedented since the 1930s. In that sense, the “economic bomb” effect of a war with Iran has already ensured that no rational leadership structure in Washington, Riyadh or London would set in motion such a plan, especially given the continuing effects of the 2003 attack on Iraq by George W. Bush in association with Tony Blair. However, the potential of a non-nuclear Iran for inflicting damage would be much less than that of a nuclearized North Korean military. Such a state would have the potential of doing unbearable damage to the west coast of the United States, once the DPRK crosses the threshold into development of thermonuclear weapons and intercontinental delivery systems. Given past trends and present capabilities, it is estimated that at most, it will take the Kim Jong Un regime a further thirty months before crossing that threshold and thereby rendering the regime effectively immune to hostile action by the U.S., the Republic of Korea and Japan.
In the backdrop of the rise every month in collateral damage consequent to a war with North Korea, the international community has the option of:
(i) launching such a war latest before the threshold into nuclear effectiveness against the U.S. gets crossed by the DPRK (or a lower threshold, of similar damage against Japan)
(ii) working on reducing tensions between Pyongyang and the RoC-U.S.-Japan alliance, such that a nuclearized North Korea would be extremely unlikely to launch a war against this alliance.
This is potentially achievable by a “Bright Sunshine” policy that would exponentially expand links between the DPRK and the RoC in particular, but also with the U.S. and Japan. The greater such beneficial linkages, the more the probability of hostile action gets lowered.
The present policy of the U.S. and Japan, of neither launching an attack to eliminate the nuclear capability of North Korea, while at the same time seeking to punish it and further impoverish it through sanctions (thereby continuing what may be described as a “Night” as distinct from a “Sunshine” policy) will have the effect of ensuring a discontented and vengeful North Korea at the end of the (maximum) 30-month period that the Kim Jong Un regime needs to fully actualize its destructive nuclear intercontinental potential.
The present policy of Tokyo and Washington of “No War, No Peace, Only Hostile Relations” ensures the worst possible outcome for the U.S., Japan and its allies. In other words, it ensures a nuclearized North Korea (given that the sanctions will remain as ineffective as in the past and present in making Pyongyang reverse course) as well as a regime that will regard Washington, Tokyo and perhaps (depending on the approach taken by the RoC government) Seoul as existential enemies, and accelerate a program of asymmetric warfare against the three, secure in the knowledge that its nuclear capability renders it immune from retaliation.
The situation of at least the U.S. and Japan vis-a-vis North Korea would be similar to that of India with Pakistan, with the latter country constantly harassing the former through use of unconventional methods and actors, including those linked to terror hubs. Either Washington or Tokyo should plan and effectuate a war with Pyongyang designed to eliminate that state’s offensive capabilities, or they need to follow the advice of President Moon Jae-in of the RoC in seeking to ensure better relations between the two separated ethnic brothers and sisters. What is obvious (except it would appear to those who have been responsible for such grievous geo-political errors as have been seen in Iraq since 2003 and in Libya and Syria since 2011) is that the “Darker and Darker Night” instrument of international sanctions has been ineffective in reversing the North Korean nuclear and missile program, and will continue to remain so.
Ensuring a resolution to the North Korean global security dilemma is essential, because of the potential of the Kim Jong Un regime to become an international force multiplier for other global security threats. Indeed, it could become a global hub, an endemic focus, for such threats. And we must remember that before rolling back and finally eliminating a health epidemic, it is necessary to locate and subsequently render harmless locations that are the “endemic focus” of the disease i.e. those places where it multiplies and spreads. Towards the final quarter of the second half of the 21st century, the globe’s principal security threats include:
(1) A weakening of economic growth, including in its inclusivist nature, of a magnitude such that unemployment and its attendant misery consolidates and grows;
(2) The proliferation of both the technology as well as the physical possession of nuclear devices and weapons, together with the means of delivery;
(3) The misuse of cyberspace in order to participate in criminal activity, such as facilitation of (i) the slave trade (ii) child abuse and pornography or (iii) siphoning off money from bank accounts through breaking into their internet firewall defenses;
(4) The arming and training of terror groups whose objective is the mass murder of civilians in order to cause social and economic instability using one excuse or the other, whether religious, sociological or other.
It has to be accepted that the endemic focus for Threat (1) are the global financial hubs located principally in New York, London, Zurich and Frankfurt. The unrestrained greed of those at the apex of financial institutions headquartered in these locations have since the close of the 1980s resulted in an increase in coefficients of inequality even within countries with a high per capita income. This has fueled unemployment and under-employment (defined as the suboptimal use of individual talent), causing severe geopolitical stress. An example is the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011, which within two months of its inception was forecast by the presenter of this paper to develop inexorably into a “Wahhabi Winter”, where exclusivist religious supremacists would take control of popular movements and large segments of the popular mood, thereby draining democratic impulses away from mass actions that were regarded as being designed to promote democracy.
Two examples of the manner in which such subversion took place in the past are the 1917 Bolshevik takeover of Russia and the 1979 ascension of Ayatollah Khomeini as the master of Iran. In both cases, a strongly motivated and ideologically cohesive core element used the cover of a broad manifestation of public anger against prevailing despotic authority to seize control of the movement and afterwards, to put in place a substitute authoritarian construct that in several respects was even less respectful of individual initiative and freedoms than the structures they replaced. In the case of the “Arab Spring”, relatively small groups of Wahhabis propelled themselves into the leadership of mass movements against existing regimes, and once in office (with Egypt being the most obvious case) sought to impose religious absolutism. In the case of Egypt, the Wahhabi-leaning Muslim Brotherhood’s choice for the presidency, Mohammad Morsi, ignored the success of President Erdogan of Turkey’s use of the method of spread of Wahhabism through small steps to seek a more rapid transition to a Wahhabized state, in the process creating a groundswell of protest that gave cover to the Egyptian military to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood regime, which from the 1960s has had an adversarial relationship with the military in that very consequential country.
A narrative has taken root that the manifestations of public discontent and activism encapsulated in the term “Arab Spring” were based on a mass yearning for democracy and individual freedom. In fact, rather than liberal thought and political theory, what propelled movements such as that centered around Tahrir Square in Cairo to success was an acceleration in the prices of essential commodities. To a significant degree, these were caused by price gouging at the retail level consequent to the actions of commodity traders in markets such as Chicago. Through forward trading and by other means, the prices even of essential commodities were boosted to levels far above those warranted by fundamentals, an example being the price of crude oil. These price spikes created mass misery, which in turn caused political turmoil that toppled regimes such as that headed by Hosni Mubarak, even though these governments had no role whatsoever in the speculative and other means by which a few market manipulators based in North America and Europe ensured a steady climb in commodity prices. Some of this activity took place even after the 2008 financial crash. More than democracy, it was the wish for jobs and for cheaper bread that motivated hundreds of millions to congregate in Tahrir Square and other similar pools of Middle East protestors during that period.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or North Korea) comes into this narrative because of the policy of sanctions that has severely impacted the economy of that entity. Once the effects of such coercive measures transcended the ordinary population of that militarized state and began to affect the ruling elite, the latter began to devise ways in which to go around the sanctions and generate the global currencies (USD, Euro, Japanese Yen) they coveted and indeed needed to fuel both their lifestyles as well as the vehicles through which they retained control over the population of the DPRK. As mentioned earlier, the greed of the few in the financial capitals of the world has emerged as a security threat in view of the collateral damage caused by such self-obsessed actions. This has been to employment generation, which has been reduced far below its potential, and as a consequence of which, the growth of markets necessary to keep in operation a rising number of manufacturing and service economic entities have been anemic in comparison to what they were where Glass-Steagall had not yet been dismantled by President W. J. Clinton and the pursuit of individual profit not been raised to the level of theology by the trinity of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping.
If in the Republic of Korea a reaction is being seen against the growth of chaebols and the resultant concentration of power, such emotions spring from the same source as have motivated movements against concentration of wealth elsewhere. The toxic effects of these have very conveniently been placed by captive media outlets at the doors of “globalization”, when in fact they are the consequence of the concentration of wealth and effective power within a small number of individuals, leaving the rest either stagnating economically or falling behind past performance.
Far from being “irrational” or acting in a “self-destructive” manner, the leadership of the DPRK (now headed by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un) has shown extraordinary adaptability and resourcefulness in seeking to gain cover against the frankly hostile actions of countries such as the U.S. and Japan. This analyst has consistently suggested a “Bright Sunshine” policy towards the DPRK, in the expectation that the faster economic growth (with hopefully a trickle-down effect into the broader population) would alter elite responses and reflexes away from the battle-ready mode that these have been in for much of the post-1945 history of the Korean peninsula. However, far from “Bright Sunshine”, even the 1998-2008 “Late Evening Sunshine” policy of two RoC Presidents was reversed. Rather than slow down progress towards nuclear capability and assisting in reconciliation between the two halves of a great society, what may be termed the “Night” policy has resulted in the DPRK ignoring the sanctions and moving towards viability as a nuclear weapons power.
The expectation is that the Kim Jong Un regime is less than two years away from perfecting a nuclear weapon as well as delivery systems that would be able to reach the west coast of the United States. The type of sanctions imposed on the DPRK under pressure mainly from Tokyo and Washington have accelerated a policy of relying on non-conventional and indeed criminal methods of securing the money and material needed for the nuclear weapons program. In the process, the conventional capability of the Kim Jong Un regime has been hollowed out in comparison to the RoC, with the consequence that a recourse to nuclear weapons will become essential for survival early on in a conflict situation. As for the economic impact, the greater the distance between the DPRK and the powers opposed to it, the more would be the incentive to concentrate on the nuclear weapons program.
The manner in which…
(a) Saddam Hussein was taken out after having surrendered his WMD stockpiles (and repeatedly proclaiming this fact);
(b) Muammar Gadhafi was removed from power and subsequently murdered, after he had handed over his stocks of WMD;
(c) Bashar Assad, after handing over chemical weapons stockpiles on the insistence of Russia (which calculated that such an act would ensure that US-EU sanctions against it would be rolled back rather than increased as subsequently took place), experienced a sharp uptick in the assistance given to those determined to make him and others in his regime face the same fate as the Gadhafi suite as well as in both diplomatic as well as military steps against his regime;
…have ensured that there is a close to zero probability of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un handing over the WMD at his disposal to NATO and its Japanese ally. Even if there occurred the unrealistic prospect of a power sharing agreement between the DPRK and the RoC that would establish a joint governmental and military command structure, the ruling elite in Pyongyang would not feel secure unless they retained the capacity to inflict unacceptable damage on Tokyo and Washington, their principal tormentors. Even in a unification settlement, control over the nuclear button would remain with those now in command of them in Pyongyang until the level of trust reached a level such as to obviate the effects of the actions of NATO in Iraq, Libya and Syria after WMD stockpiles had been handed over by all three states.
Each failure in results has resulted in a fresh “turn of the screw” in the strategy of sanctions as a means towards the de-nuclearization of the DPRK, the loss in each gambling round being responded to with another throw of the same set of dice viz an intensification of sanctions. Paradoxically, the more the impact of such measures on the lifestyles and capabilities of the ruling elite in Pyongyang, the greater will be the thrust of the regime towards multiplying undercover actions designed to accumulate cash. In the process, the regime would intensify its involvement as a facilitator of the three other security threats mentioned earlier.
Kim Jong Un is understood by those familiar with him to seek a modernization of the DPRK such that it more closely approximates the economic success of the RoC. He is not considered as doctrinaire in economic policy as his father Kim Jong Il, possibly as a consequence of greater exposure to the Soviet Union. This is in contrast to his son, who has been reported as having spent extended periods of time in such European countries as France and Switzerland, and whose taste in matters of culture extends to products of both European as well as North American vintage. In another example of the importance of timing, in case the latest successor to the North Korean throne had been in charge when the Sunshine Policy was put into operation, the transformation of North Korea into a more modern economy would have been more comprehensive than under his father, who to the end of his life retained Soviet-era suspicions of private industry, such as were also shared by Fidel Castro. The Cuban leader was not geopolitically supple enough to leverage the substantial advantages that his country was capable of accessing in view of its geographical proximity to the U.S. Kim Jong Un took charge at this precise period.
In contrast, up to the takeover of power in China in 1949 by the Chinese Communist Party, Chairman Mao Zedong kept the U.S. guessing about his intentions, thereby reducing the incentive to arm the KMT at full throttle, and assist that party through the use of air power, as was possible during 1945-49. Just as Vietnam and the U.S. have come together after a protracted and blood-soaked conflict, Cuba and the U.S. under John F. Kennedy could have reconciled after the Bay of Pigs, rather than settle into a confrontation by all save expressly military means. More than the U.S. side, it was the Soviet-inculcated belief in the “inevitable victory” of Communism in both Castro as well as Ernesto Guevara that made them willing pawns of the USSR rather than go the way of Anwar Sadat in Egypt, who won the U.S. over through a grand gesture of peace that ensured the return of the Sinai and the continuing overall moderate ethos of Egyptian society, with the extremist fringe having an effect completely disproportionate to their numbers because of the lack of ability of the security system in Egypt (with its colonial mindset and practices still largely intact) to deal with them in an effective manner.
By offering Kim Jong Un and his suite of civilian and military officials only the non-existent “choice” between peaceful surrender and surrender through war, the U.S. and Japan (as also South Korea during the time when Ms. Park was Head of State) have steadily caused an erosion of trust to a level that has made a mutually agreed elimination of nuclear weapons by the DPRK an impossible outcome. War is, of course, an option. Another is the adoption of a “Bright Sunshine” policy towards Pyongyang that would result in a greatly increased flow of visitors and investors from the south to the north. Those in constant proximity to the DPRK’s Supreme Leader say that (apart from developing a nuclear weapons capability sufficient to deter the U.S. and its allies from going to war for his regime’s removal) he would like to see the same transformation in his de facto kingdom as was accomplished by Deng Xiaoping in the People’s Republic of China. The greater the mutually beneficial linkages binding together the RoC and the DPRK, the more would be contact both formal and non-official between Pyongyang and capitals such as Tokyo and Washington that are allies of Seoul.
An acceleration of such contacts through the implementation of a “Bright Sunshine” policy towards the DPRK would lessen the incentives for:
(i) A concentration on clandestine and criminal modes for accumulation of cash by the regime and;
(ii) Lower the risks of a major escalation of non-conventional confrontation between Pyongyang and its perceived foes – Tokyo and Washington.
The higher level of trust consequent to such a change in policy would work to soothe fears in Pyongyang of a surprise attack by the U.S. and its allies on the regime, and calm presently justified fears in Tokyo and Washington that the DPRK could launch a WMD attack on the population centers of both. As already mentioned, the steady degradation of conventional military capability of the Kim Jong Un regime has driven up the possibility that non-conventional weapons would get used by Pyongyang even in the early stages of a conflict. Such is the pit into which the policy since the 1990s of the U.S. and its allies towards North Korea have driven the situation into.
It may be repeated that among the principal reasons why the 1998-2008 “Evening Sunshine” policy produced less than stellar results was the Sovietized approach of Kim Jong Il. In contrast, Kim Jong Un is much more open to making full use of the opportunities for China-style economic growth that would get created by a “Bright Sunshine” policy towards him. If the option of decisive military force is taken off the table as a consequence of its attendant risks, rather than continue with the “Night” policy in the context of steady weaponization of the nuclear deterrent by Pyongyang, seeking to reduce hostility and simultaneously increase the areas of productive cooperation would be a better strategy. Of course, again assuming that the military option gets discarded by the U.S. and its allies.
Meanwhile, the more the DPRK-targeting sanctions bite, the higher the incentive to act as a facilitator for those involved in the other three threats listed above viz nuclear proliferation, criminal use of cyberspace and assistance to terror groups . In the process, North Korea is becoming ever more of an endemic focus promoting the breeding of global threats. These will be such as have a disproportionate effect on security of the U.S. and Japan. Because of the historical convergence of interests between Moscow and Pyongyang, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un is unlikely to sanction any activity that would adversely affect the security of the Russian Federation. As for the People’s Republic of China, the country is the life support system of North Korea, which is why activities (as distinct from words or symbolic gestures) hostile to it are extremely unlikely.
If the U.S. and its allies seek to eliminate nuclear weapons capability in the DPRK, action on a comprehensive scale (with its attendant side effects) will need to be carried out before “criticality” is reached on nuclear weapons and their platforms, a process that may be expected to take about 28-30 months at most, given present levels of development. If war has in effect been taken off the table, the only other option is to adopt a Bright Sunshine policy that would greatly expand contacts and dealings between the two halves of the Korean peninsula. Assuming that there is no pre-emptive war launched by the U.S. and Japan on North Korea, and should the present “Night” policy continue up to (and beyond) the stage when Pyongyang achieves criticality in its nuclear deterrent (defined as thermonuclear weapons capable of reaching the west coast of the U.S.), from then onwards for an indeterminate period, North Korea will be to the U.S. and Japan what Pakistan is to India, except much worse, in that the marshals in Pyongyang are not reliant on the U.S. and the EU for the settling down of their families or the banking of cash the way the generals in Islamabad are. Consequently, asymmetric warfare carried out by a nuclear-capable, sanctions-hit North Korea would be even more troublesome for the U.S. and Japan that Pakistan has been for India.
President Trump and Prime Minister Abe have a choice between war and a policy of Bright Sunshine. The present policy of no war but a policy of quarantine and sanctions will result in decades of disaster within the 28-30 month period mentioned earlier. The choice concerning the DPRK is between a “Bright Sunshine” policy and full scale war before much more time gets lost. The present policy of sanctions sans war is not working and will never work, given the nature of the regime in power in Pyongyang. A policy designed to increase linkages between the two sides of the 38thparallel may in time ensure unity of both, on the German model. Such an outcome would ensure that the immense energy and resourcefulness of the noble Korean people would get unleashed in a manner that could surprise and delight the world.