Solving the North Korean Crisis

The North Korean crisis has escalated in tension since Kim Jong-Un’s successful ICBM test on the 4th of July. It’s an issue that cannot be ignored since it threatens the collective security of East Asia and soon, the US. Identifying the future challenges this crisis is reserving for policy makers will allow for a more efficient resolution of this issue.

The North Korean crisis is especially challenging because there isn’t one answer to resolving it.  This is caused by the numerous set of issues comprising this crisis. These include North Korea’s nuclear program development, human rights violations and deeply rooted historical issues. Therefore, for each level of the crisis one specific solution must be found to remedy it.

Source: yeowatzup/Flickr

At the same time, decision makers must ensure that their policies don’t conflict with each other’s goals. The US and South Korea’s lacked awareness of this and implemented policies contradicting each other’s aims. The US sought to limit North Korea’s nuclear program development through the Agreed Framework signed in 1994. This agreement vowed to stop the plutonium enrichment program fueling the development of North Korean nuclear weapons. The nuclear power plants engaging in such activities were to be shut down and replaced by light-water reactors. South Korea has been fighting against the rising level of North Korean poverty by distributing financial aid. This was an integral part of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy lasting from 1998 to 2008. However, South Korea’s financial aid was intercepted by North Korea and used to finance its nuclear program development. Thus, both countries didn’t accomplish their set goals efficiently because of conflicting policies.

Another challenge that the Trump administration must confront is collectively agreeing on a desired outcome from the North Korean crisis. Clarifying goals will avoid misunderstandings between the US and North Korea and prevent a crisis escalation. Sam Gardiner, a past US Air Force colonel, has led war games imagining an outburst of the North Korean crisis. The main lesson he’s drawn from these games is “if you don’t know what your objective is, it’s not possible to find military options to achieve it”.

The lack of set goals might be the reason why the White House hasn’t determined a layout of options to resolve the North Korean crisis. Mike Pence declared in April that he desired to see “countries all over the world committing to a denuclearized Korean peninsula”. However, he failed to elaborate on the different means that could be used to achieve this. Trump has recently stated that North Korea is “behaving in a very very dangerous manner” and that “something will have to be done about it”.  Vague statements like Trump’s are proof that the US hasn’t determined the proper means it wishes to follow to resolve the crisis.

The need for policy makers to change their perception of North Korea will also constitute a challenge. The widespread view of North Korea remains one of an irrational regime seeking the annihilation of the planet. Following the assassination of Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother, the US ambassador to the UN proclaimed that North Korea’s leader is “not a rational person” and “is not thinking clearly”. This perception is inaccurate because North Korea has always aimed towards regime survival and keeping its leading family in power. More importantly, North Korea has achieved this goal successfully since the family led regime still exists today.

Assuming that North Korea is irrational harms efficient policy making. It delays negotiations by setting “unrealistic expectations for compromise”. It also increases the chance of US miscalculations by interpreting North Korean actions as offensive rather than defensive. It is unlikely that North Korea is willing to use its nuclear weapons offensively since that would lead to an unforgiving US nuclear response. North Korea would be unable to survive such a retaliation and we know that Kim Jong-Un isn’t suicidal. If the US were to change its view on North Korea, it could find effective strategies directly harming the survival of Kim Jong-Un’s regime. Eventually, this could force him to make concessions, such as giving up his nuclear program.

Cooperating with China to solve the North Korean crisis will also challenge US policy makers. The US has good reasons to cooperate with China since it has significant economic and financial leverage over North Korea. During the first half of this year, China-North Korea trade amounted to $2,55 billion. Cooperating with China will challenge US policy makers because China still supports the North Korean regime. This is the case for two reasons. China and North Korea have been allies since the 1950-53 Korean War. By becoming allies, China has vowed to protect North Korea. Cutting ties with Kim Jong-Un would represent an act of treason. Strategically, the North Korean territory benefits China. North Korea acts as a buffer state for China limiting American influence. North Korea’s fall would trigger an increased presence of US soldiers on China’s borders. This would disadvantage China on a military standpoint. Finally, the reunification of Korea would provoke a massive exodus of North Korean refugees into China. This is undesirable for a country already burdened with overpopulation.

On the other hand, China’s support for North Korea is limited. China would have decreased North Korean coal imports by 75% in 2017.This has deprived North Korea of its main source of economic revenue. China has also described North Korea’s ICBM test as “unacceptable” following a joint discussion with Vladimir Putin. Moreover, China’s support for a backwards regime like North Korea undermines its credibility internationally. As a country gaining ground as a world superpower, it must reflect the best image of itself. North Korea is also a source of military instability in the East Asian region. If Japan and South Korea’s fears about North Korean activities keep growing, they could heavily militarize themselves. This would weaken China’s hegemony in East Asia which Xi Jinping does not want.

The US should begin by adding pressure on Chinese banks to crack down on foreign financial dealings linking China and North Korea. The US has already frozen the assets of more than 200 North Korean officials through Chinese banks in the aim of isolating North Korea financially. A similar strategy was used during the Iranian nuclear crisis. The US Treasury froze the assets of numerous Iranian international bank accounts amounting to $120 billion. This policy proved to be effective since it pushed Iran to begin negotiating with the US on its nuclear program. Therefore, the US should aim to freeze the assets of more North Korean officials to increase pressure on Kim Jong-Un.

While the North Korean crisis is not impossible to cure, it will take a long time to find the solutions that all parties involved in the crisis will approve. One solution won’t remedy all the issues of this crisis, making it extremely challenging to solve for policy makers around the globe. Conflicts of interest have provoked powerful countries like the US and China to position themselves in opposite camps. The US should ensure that it clarifies its goals and switches its perception on North Korea. China ought to reconsider its ties with North Korea and evaluate if its fears of a Korean reunification are rational. In any case, a peaceful solution to the crisis will require both countries to cooperate with one another. If not, the US could be tempted to use more aggressive means to get its message across which could result in war.

Quentin Thomas

Quentin Thomas

Policy Intern at InPRA
Currently, I’m a third-year student completing a bachelor of arts degree in Political Science and East Asian Studies at McGill University. I’ve been paying careful attention to international affairs and particularly to politics in East Asia.

More recently, my personal research has been focused on studying and contrasting the political regimes of Japan, China and North Korea. Through InPRA I hope to shed light on unnoticed trends in this region and offer a distinct perspective to readers on world politics. My aspiration is to one day become a diplomat.
Quentin Thomas

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