Shadow Government

Rogue state rollback on the Korean peninsula?

North Korea's recent saber-rattling raises troubling new questions about the bipartisan failure of American policy to limit Pyongyang's armed recklessness and to manage its growing threat to the United States and our allies. Over the past few years, North Korea has walked across previous "red lines" -- attacking South Korean territory and sinking a South Korean naval vessel, abrogating the armed truce that has governed the peninsula for six decades, directly threatening the United States and our allies with attack, repeatedly testing nuclear weapons, and testing an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of hitting U.S. territory -- all with impunity. Is it time for Washington and its allies to implement a more robust containment policy to counter the erosion of Northeast Asian security caused by Pyongyang's dangerous provocations? 

To sketch out such a policy is not to endorse it, for it entails considerable risks. But the risks attending the current status quo appear to be growing and unsustainable. Indeed, on current trends, America and its allies may be on a collision course with North Korea unless we consider a new approach that deprives Pyongyang of the strategic initiative that is keeping the Asia-Pacific democracies off-balance. Such an approach would be most effective if coordinated between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo with support from other regional powers. It might also help change China's calculations about whether and to what extent to support an "ally" that has become an acute strategic liability.

An aggressive containment strategy would tighten existing financial sanctions on North Korea by penalizing any third-country bank or firm doing business with it. In particular, Chinese entities would be faced with a choice: Do business with the United States, Japan, and South Korea, or with North Korea -- but not both.

On the military side, an intensified containment strategy would interdict all ship-borne traffic heading to North Korea in international waters to inspect it for contraband, including WMD components. Rather than passively observing and measuring the success of North Korean missile launches, a containment strategy with juice would have the United States and Japan jointly shoot down those missiles, depriving Pyongyang of the propaganda victories it claims following each test. In cyberspace, the United States and its allies could pursue a tit-for-tat approach to North Korean provocations, turning out the lights in Pyongyang when its leaders threaten us and our allies.

Using its soft power of attraction rather than relying purely on the hard power of its sophisticated military capabilities, South Korea could offer to open its borders to any North Korean able to escape their gulag of a country by land or sea, in a sort of "tear-down-this wall" policy that would complicate North Korea's ability to police its borders -- and undercut the legitimacy of the Pyongyang regime by demonstrating to the world how many of its citizens are desperate to leave it behind.

In his 1999 Landon Lecture at Kansas State University, Senator John McCain urged the United States to stop playing "prevent defense" when it came to North Korea, moving instead to a policy of "rogue-state rollback" that targeted the legitimacy and power of the regime itself. The question for leaders in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo is whether they are ready to move to a more active policy that chips away at the foundations of a Pyongyang regime that directly threatens their people and their interests -- not only in Asia but also in the Middle East, where Iran's budding nuclear weapons program benefits from North Korean assistance. For China's new leaders, the question is whether the albatross of North Korea now so threatens stability in Northeast Asia that cutting it off is actually less risky than continuing to underwrite it.

The Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience" may soon need to give way to a policy of "strategic initiative" that prevents the people of the United States and our closest Asian allies from being held hostage to the whims of the tyrant in Pyongyang.

An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that North Korea had in recent years sunk a South Korean submarine. In fact, the North sank a corvette belonging to the South and not a submarine.

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Kim Jong Un’s two escalation ladders

The media is transfixed on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's threat to escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. Kim has already declared that the North is on a full war footing, put his rocket forces on "full alert," and promised to nuke Washington and destroy the South. Predictably, a host of North Korea pundits are getting air and print time urging the administration to "engage" Pyongyang to prevent a rush to war on the peninsula (Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson is ubiquitous, but fortunately we have been spared the geostrategic musings of NBA body art nightmare Dennis Rodman, the most recent high profile visitor to Pyongyang).

Young Kim and his National Defense Commission obviously want all attention on the escalation ladder they are now producing, directing, and starring in. However, it is the other escalation ladder that is far more important to them and threatening to us: the North's two decade nuclear and ballistic missile weapons development programs. Reports now suggest that Pyongyang's recent nuclear test was a well-concealed explosion of a uranium device. The test was probably successful and therefore positions the North to begin producing nuclear weapons in the near future by spinning centrifuges underground where detection and elimination will be a far more difficult task for the United States. With a deliverable nuclear weapons capability -- likely aimed at Japan and Guam first -- Pyongyang will seek to force sanctions relief and "peaceful coexistence" with the United States as a "fellow nuclear weapons state." When the North is ready to increase the protection price for not driving a pick-up truck through our store window, they will threaten to export their technology to the Middle East or engage in smaller scale provocations under cover of a nuclear deterrent, i.e., threaten to drive an even bigger pick-up truck through our store window. 

All of this reflects a recurring pattern over the past 15 years. This time, however, the rhetoric is more shrill and unnerving. Most commentary has attributed this to young Kim's need to establish credibility with his generals -- at least one of whom he has already blown up (literally) as a message to the others. But if you think about the other escalation ladder, it would seem there is a more important audience -- China. Beijing surprised the North by supporting chapter seven Security Council sanctions last month in the wake of the North's missile test -- and then surprised the experts by actually implementing those sanctions with inspections at its ports. China is the one country that could bring down the North, but Pyongyang understands how to terrify Chinese leaders like a small wasp buzzing around the nose of a giant. It appears that the North's newest bellicosity may have worked. The U.N. Security Council committees responsible for implementing sanctions were humming along for the first few weeks after the members of the council unanimously adopted the tough new resolution. Then, Beijing suddenly put the brakes on last week. 

Since they have learned how badly it can play for the party in power politically, the Obama administration has generally preferred not to put North Korea on the front burner. But the administration was right to brandish force, not only as a reassuring deterrent to our allies but also as a signal to Beijing that we will not be knocked off track by North Korean bluster. Of course, that signal would be more credible if the administration had not engineered a sequestration strategy that cuts our Navy and Air Force, but that is the topic for another post.

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images