How Do You Solve a Problem Like North Korea?

By James Brown

Photo: Kim Jong-Un using the Internet, Creative Common License

“The Kims like their virgins in this world and not the next,” said Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.  In apparent comparison to the beliefs of certain Islamic Extremists, Bandow made the argument that Kim Jong-un’s brinkmanship stems not from a reckless disregard of potential consequences, but rational self-interest.  At a Cato Institute event titled “How Do You Solve a Problem Like North Korea?”, held on November 6, 2017, most panelists tended to agree. 

What is behind North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons?

The consensus seemed to be that Kim’s dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons is intended not only to secure a seat at the negotiating table, so to speak, but to ensure his own continued existence.  In illustrating this point, several panelists at the Cato event referenced Kim’s cognizance of the fate of Muammar Gaddafi, the late leader of Libya who agreed to nuclear disarmament in 2003 but was ousted from power and summarily executed by rebel troops after a NATO intervention in 2011. 
Rajan Menon, the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Chair in Political Science at the City College of New York, noted that North Korea’s official statements have justified its nuclear program by pointing to U.S. and NATO actions against both Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.  Menon thus disagrees with the Trump administration’s current approach to nuclear disarmament, which has included threats of war in the event that peaceable means fail.  “The more that [Un] is threatened with force,” Menon concluded, “the more he will feel justified in pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

Is diplomacy a lost cause?

While most panelists agreed the United States’ past efforts with North Korea have left something to be desired, they also criticized the more aggressive approach of the Trump administration as dangerous or ineffective. 

John Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and former adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry, insists that negotiation “is the only thing that has ever worked,” and condemned President Trump’s willingness to engage in brinksmanship of his own, particularly regarding his threat to “totally destroy North Korea.” According to Cirincione, Americans have been “living in a world of counterinsurgency and special operations,” which has skewed their perceptions of what a war with North Korea would entail.  The Congressional Research Service recently estimated that North Korean artillery could kill tens of thousands of people in South Korea in the opening hours of a conflict.  Moreover, the Pentagon found that locating and securing all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons would require a full “ground invasion,” the scale of which would be in stark contrast to the high-tech, surgical operations Americans have grown accustomed to in recent years in the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups. 

However, Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and North Korea negotiator, explained that in addition to the Libya intervention in 2011, the United States’ handling of the Iran nuclear deal has eroded its ability to conduct meaningful diplomacy. “Trump’s decertifying of an agreement made just two years ago by an American president,” said Richardson, “undermines our ability to negotiate with North Korea – or anyone else.”  Still, Richardson believes that “people to people” diplomacy is the best course of action, and rejects the notion that “dialogue rewards bad behavior.” The reality, according to Richardson, is that “you gotta talk to bad people.”