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[Robert Fouser] Dealing with North Korea

North Korea’s successful tests of two ICBMs in July have worsened the already tense security environment in Northeast Asia. Each provocation by North Korea triggers a round of condemnation in Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo. To bring greater understanding to the situation, the media turns to North Korea experts who offer contradictory perspectives.

Understanding the contradictory perspectives about North Korea involves looking at the all-important question of motives. The perspectives vary, but they can be broadly organized into two camps: Regime preservation and pro-active reunification.

Regime preservationist experts argue that due to North Korea’s overriding interest of regime preservation, the regime views nuclear weapons as survival insurance. Nuclear weapons protect the regime from the American regime change efforts that succeeded in Iraq and Libya.

They also argue that nuclear weapons help bolster the regime domestically by making it look strong. Under these conditions, the North will never give up its nuclear program, so the best the world can do is try to contain the threat.

Pro-active reunification experts, meanwhile, argue that North Korea is developing nuclear weapons to drive the US out of South Korea. Nuclear weapons could intimidate South Korea to force the US to leave. Alternatively, they could force the US to withdraw as it shifts its focus from protecting South Korea to protecting itself. The departure of US forces from South Korea is part of North Korea’s longstanding plan to reunify the peninsula under its rule.

Not surprisingly, regime preservationist experts lean to the political left because the heart of their argument focuses on North Korea’s reaction to perceived US aggression. Pro-active reunification experts lean to the right because they argue that North Korea’s ambitions pose the strongest threat to stability in the region.

Both groups argue, as experts do, but few conclusions are reached, which makes it hard for concerned nations to develop a response beyond perfunctory rounds of condemnation. A closer look, however, reveals that both arguments have merit.

Kim Jong-un, the third-generation leader of the dynasty founded by Kim Il-sung, clearly wants to survive. He has introduced limited market reforms that have created a consumer boom in Pyongyang, which has helped make him popular among the elite.

Kim Jong-un also needs to maintain control over society. The best way to do that is to do what his father and grandfather did: maintain the perpetual war with the US. This creates a constant security state which justifies oppression of any opposition to the regime. The goal of the perpetual war is removal of the US forces and the conquest of South Korea, therefore completing the mission that Kim Il-sung set out to achieve on June 25, 1950.

North Korea wants not only to survive, but to win. It needs to achieve both goals -- and nuclear weapons are important to achieving them. As regime preservationist experts argue, nuclear weapons offer protection against conventional regime change efforts. As pro-active reunification experts argue, nuclear weapons feed into the narrative of the perpetual war that ends in conquest over South Korea. The connection between survival and conquest leaves South Korea and the US no good options in dealing with the nuclear threat.

The default option is to contain North Korea, but this would not remove the nuclear threat, which risks nuclear proliferation and escalating tensions in the region. Years of sanctions have not prevented the North’s development of nuclear capability. This also leaves North Korea in the position to sell nuclear and missile technology to terrorist groups and countries hostile to the US. Its potential to become a source of transferable technology grows with each test.

In a perfect world, a new round of six-party talks could produce agreements like those that allowed West and East Germany to recognize each other and open diplomatic relations in 1973. North Korea could give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for recognition from South Korea, the US and Japan. However, North Korea would never accept this because giving up nuclear weapons and recognizing South Korea would undermine the legitimacy of the regime.

The opposite strategy of negotiation is pre-emptive military action with the aim of a regime change. This option is unthinkable because of the potential for loss of life, despite what hard-liners in Washington and elsewhere think.

There is another option: internal regime change. This would focus on working secretly with North Koreans to remove Kim Jong-un with the hope that the new regime would be more willing to negotiate. This option carries substantial risk, but encouraging North Koreans to take regime change into their own hands offers the greatest hope of preventing war.

By Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.
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