North Korea. How do we fix a historically broken situation? Here’s a strategy for course correction

I’ve been keeping a keen eye over the past 20 years on US foreign policy towards North Korea with interest, concern and amazement.

The interest is based in how we haven’t been able to bring the relationship to any kind of positive foundation despite the efforts of Democratic & Republican Presidents since the end of the Korean War.

The concern is rooted in the current level of rhetoric and hostile discourse between Kim Jung Jun & Donald Trump. It’s unhinged, emotional and petty and can easily be turned into a nuclear conflict.

The amazement comes from the realization that you have one of the poorest countries in the world possesses one of the largest. Most well equipped militaries in the world. The country can’t afford to feed its citizens but it can buy equipment, build hardware and finance a nuclear armament program that is moving at break-neck speed and technological capacity beyond our most conservative expectations.

So, what can we do to address this current global crisis, with one of the poorest countries in the world? It’s a three prong approach that could turn a difficult situation into an advantage for the US, the region & North Korea. This triangulation approach would roll out as follows:

1. Allowing Japan & South Korea to develop nuclear defensive capabilities, strengthen conventional defensive capacity and encourage/allow Japan to rebuild offensive military capacity. This will have multiple impacts on the regional political and defensive posture in the Region. China still has lingering feelings about the extended military conflict between themselves & Japan (1931 to 1945) and Russia has feelings still about islands it lost in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Neither will be fans of Japan growing their military capacity beyond the island, but this can also have an impact of China & Russia’s willingness to cut off the weapons development, food and economic support both provide to North Korea. The buildup of Japan can be tempted through a new multi-lateral non-aggression treaty between Japan, South Korea, Russia, China, the US and add the other permanent members of the UN security council, Germany and Canada, as a prelim to direct joint dialogue with North Korea. The secondary rationale is the fact that a more self-reliant Japan and South Korea can bring balance without the need to increase the US military region. Lastly, this would serve as a direct warning to North Korea that the region will be better prepared to respond to continued provocations. The other benefit of this approach is the realization that North Korea is not going to voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons program. Building up the military capacity of Japan and South Korea and allowing them to gain nuclear capabilities puts an added check on the North Korea efforts because our allies will be able to assure mutual destruction, which served as the basis of restraint during the cold war between us & the USSR, but now on a local level.

2. Open no strings attached talks with North Korea & Japan, South Korea, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and Canada. The carrot will have to be the immediate infusion of capital, food and investment in the North Korea population. In spite of positive GDP growth over the past 5 years and a growing black market economy, the majority of the North Korean population is poor, undernourished and lacking in the normal comforts that are enjoyed around the world. Stimulating the populace with the benefits of being included in the global economy can have a tremendous impact on their mood towards the West, to Kim Jung Jun and the fact that they have been living beneath the normal standard of communication, technology and basic daily survival. A great way to turn a people from the stark path of communism and authoritarianism is to place access to the benefits of choice and economic gain directly in front of them. There can be a win here for North Korean leadership, by making them a partner in providing this type of return for their citizens versus their current economic state. Now, in time the citizens may turn against Kim and his destructive leadership style, but as a person who enjoys praise from his citizens, he may buy into an opportunity to win for his citizens, in exchange for monitoring of his nuclear program and responsible guidelines to reduce the speed and aggression of his approach. Once again, accepting the realization that a nuclear-free North Korea is not going to happen, a monitored approach with democratization of the North Korean population can garner the type of desired containment.

3. If both steps don’t work, we must be prepared for war to address the problem. While it’s not the desired outcome, it’s better to be prepared for this versus talking about it without providing any tangible action. The logical steps would include shifting the population in Seoul and the surrounding region and moving the necessary resources in place to force a conventional military action. Unlike the Iraq war, commit the necessary number of troops, with coalition troop commitments, to defeat the North Koreans while reducing the likelihood that they will be able to launch nuclear weapons. The North Korean situation requires serious deliberate thought but also cold logical steps to prepare for an immediate military action as necessary, if the other steps don’t check the situation. One important step will be to work out a redevelopment plan for the Korean peninsula, with China, South Korean & Japan partnership & include planning for a mutually agreed upon leadership structure for North Korea that satisfies China’s concerns of losing a buffer state from US allies and easing our concerns of repeating the failures of solving the initial Korean War and setting up another 64 years of conflict and tension. The concern for China is legitimate and similar to the desire for Russia to have a buffer of influence from Germany through Poland after World War II. Roosevelt & Stalin had agreed to a buffer relationship with the USSR having a political sphere of influence over Poland in exchange for stopping the expansion of Communism across Eastern Europe. Two months after this agreement, President Roosevelt died and President Truman, influenced by the Neo-Cons in both the Democrat and Republican parties encouraged him to back out on the deal and play hard ball with the USSR. The USSR response was to expand their sphere across all of Eastern Europe (save Greece) and launch us into the cold war. The learning lesson? Take your distant allies concerns seriously and find a peaceful or strategic partnership to provide a win-win for both. In this case, a buffer state that China can be comfortable with while a limited North Korea that is rebuilt and integrated into the community of nations. If you have to go down this road, this path provides for a strategic path for operational success and planning for rebuild and restore.

The North Korean situation is not and will not deliver a simple easy solution. I believe it will take a combination approach 1 and 2 to provide a real diplomatic solution with a chance for sustainability. If approach 3 (military option) is the only outcome, go all in with a logical strategy for rebuilding the country, minimizing the civilian impacts and have partnership approach with the coalition of nations in the negotiations with China as a military partner. That would be the proverbial “stick” approach to the “carrots” of approach 1 & 2, relatively speaking of course.

I'm a Father, 10th generation American (family roots to South Carolina, 1725 roughly), Political, Public Policy, Economic Theory & Data Analytics SME.