Last Updated on August 25, 2017.
By Halley Posner
“The time for talk is over!” “US allies prepared to use ‘overwhelming force’ in North Korea!” Those are just some of the alarmist headlines splashed across news outlets. People see a country with a reclusive, repressive dictatorship and immediately are wary of engaging in diplomatic relationships. But let’s remember, all-out war is too costly to consider. A militarily aggressive United States can help aggravate the oppressive regime, ensuring further suffering, starvation, and insecurity for the North Korean people, while not actually doing anything to keep America safe. Until exhausted, diplomacy should be the only strategy that the United States uses towards North Korea because it facilitates mutually beneficial talks which can lead to sustainable, peaceful solutions.
A way to understand and engage with North Korea is to recognize the reasoning behind their behavior. ‘Juche’ is the government’s bedrock ideology, a movement which grew out of the Soviet Union’s Stalinist influence and intense nationalistic sentiments. Espousing staunch isolationism, this dogma created an austere nation whose leadership highly values self-sufficiency. We should consider many actions the North Koreans take in terms of this foundation. Former ambassador to South Korea and former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Chris Hill notes “North Korea has little interest in being a member of the international community, in having allies or in collective security.” How can we hope to pursue diplomacy with a country experts say wants no part in the global world? We, the United States, must accept this notion on some level because only then can we figure out a way to frame talks that are beneficial to what the Kim regime wants and what the world at large needs.
While some have called for regime change in North Korea, Libya and Iraq serve as powerful and informative examples of the catastrophe that can extend from forced regime change through outside intervention. America has a sordid track record with these actions; the tactic has yet to work out for the better. In fact, it is precisely the fear of regime change that drives North Korea’s commitment to its nuclear program. North Korea sees nuclear weapons as their insurance against such a forcing and therefore protecting it at all costs.
The folly of a military solution lies in the understanding that any attack is unlikely to destroy the North Korean arsenal and its ability to respond with deadly force. Fraser Cameron, director of the Belgium-based EU-Asia Center wrote “[t]here is no certainty that the U.S. knows the whereabouts of all North Korea’s launch sites, and any attack would lead to a devastating retaliatory strike on Seoul.” Military intervention will only compound the present suffering and heartache felt by the North Korean people and could lead to more felt by South Koreans if their neighbor decides to strike. Moreover, such a move could parlay into a catastrophic war for the Korean peninsula, and to an economic downturn for Japan, South Korea, China, and the global economy. If the United States tries and fails to get all the North Korean missiles, North Korea has made clear it would attack Seoul, resulting in an all-out war with nearly unimaginable human suffering.
U.S. policy should stop functioning like every solution can be found at the tip of a bomb. Despite what some people think, Americans want peace with North Korea. A New York Times study found that the majority of Americans who could find North Korea on a map supported a diplomatic solution. Moreover, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea was recently elected on a platform of diplomacy. His strong electoral mandate demonstrates that South Korea is ready to have an open dialog with their northern counterparts.
To orchestrate this peace, we must look at North Korea’s past actions to deduce what their future actions may be. Nikki Haley, the current United States ambassador to the United Nations, is content to say “[w]e are not dealing with a rational person” in regards to Kim Jong Un and by extension, his regime. However, through his many purges and assassination of his brother, the global community can infer that Kim Jong Un is first and foremost concerned with his own survival. Although the international community often presents Kim Jong Un as supposedly crazy, his regime’s behavior is frequently rational. The bellicose nature of the North Korean government is strategic because it keeps the regime relevant on the world stage with some power. Nonetheless, the best way to keep power is to communicate with the outside world. In other words, engage in diplomatic talks.
Instead of continuing to abandon diplomacy, the US should prioritize peaceful solutions with North Korea. An easy way is to not to cut the State Department’s budget by twenty-nine percent. We need diplomats to do their jobs, not be forced out of service. In an interview on July 20, Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, said, “[d]iplomacy is the only option to rein in North Korea’s nuclear activities. It won’t be easy but talks in the past have slowed Pyongyang’s advances and diplomacy now can have the same effect.” Another small step towards diplomacy is to appoint a South Korean ambassador. No wonder the first thought of the current administration is war, President Moon’s agenda of talks, diplomacy, and inclusivity have few champions in Washington because we do not even have an ambassador to work directly with the Moon Administration. Actions speak louder than words and our country’s current actions say we do not support a diplomatic solution. With the correct tools, there is a chance to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe of unconscionable magnitude.
People will look back on history and judge our generation. We have all the tools, we have the lessons from the past, we have the right time, and now all we need is the will to make it happen. The time to act is now.
Halley Posner was a research intern during the summer of 2017 with Win Without War at the Center for International Policy. She is a rising senior at Bates College pursuing a degree in History. Halley is passionate about nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament, human rights and dedicated to using the lessons from the past to improve the world of today.