How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?

The North Korean situation is reaching a crisis point, beyond which the United States will be in the position of having to acquiesce to the Nork’s status in the nuclear club. As is widely understood, the military options today are fraught with peril. Armchair generals might spin out scenarios of a decapitating strike on North Korea, but in the real world the chances of success are too uncertain.

Austin Bay, who knows a thing or five about such matters, lays out how it might be done, but even his account leaves ample room for doubt:

The U.S. and its allies in east Asia have the aircraft and missiles (cruise and ballistic) to deliver at least 2,000 (likely more) precision blockbuster-sized conventional weapons within a two to 10 minute time frame on North Korea’s critical targets. The April U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile attack on a Syrian Shayrat airbase provides an example.

The missiles were fired at a distance, but since they can “loiter,” the 59 missiles arrived near simultaneously. U.S. Air Force heavy bombers can drop smart bombs so that munitions dropped from different aircraft arrive near simultaneously.

A simultaneous strategic bombing strike seeks to surprise the enemy, destroy his strategic weapons systems and suppress his key defenses throughout the battle area.

That is asking a lot—perhaps too much.

This doesn’t mean it won’t come to this. It is widely reported that President Clinton seriously contemplated a military strike on North Korea in 1994, but among the factors that led him to shelve the idea was the thought that North Korea, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s turn toward capitalism, wasn’t long for this world in its present form. That was back in those glorious “end of history” years when liberalism and democracy and western enlightenment were thought to be imminently sweeping the entire globe. Never mind North Korea: the Middle East soon dispelled that chimera. North Korea is powerful evidence that Orwell’s nightmare world is a more durable form of rule that we thought. North Korea, absent some real pressure, isn’t going away any time soon. If a massive famine in the 1990s didn’t topple the regime, another round of sanctions that deprive the ruling elite of new iPhones and French wine isn’t going to do it.

The other leading idea is to get tough with China. Our imploring them to help clearly hasn’t worked beyond some token gestures. As Brian Kennedy cogently explained lately at American Greatness, China likes North Korea’s strategic annoyance of the United States, and might think it is the path to acquiring Taiwan in an appeasement trade with the U.S:

It should come as a surprise to no one that the Chinese have helped the North Koreans with their ballistic missile program and have had every interest in doing so. This affords them tremendous political leverage with the United States, as China—the neighboring superpower—plays the role of reasonable intermediary, interceding on behalf of the United States and the world to check the nuclear ambitions of their North Korean brothers. But this intercession comes at a cost. China would be happy to help the United States, but Beijing couldn’t possibly do that and be pressured over its own failure to abide by international standards when it comes to trade and finance, including currency manipulation. This is a game the Chinese have played successfully for decades. Consider it the Chinese Art of the Deal.

That’s why the time has come for some sanctions on China that will really hurt the ruling party elite, like denying visas for their kids to enroll in American universities (Bill McGurn suggests this today in the Wall Street Journal), and Austin Bay raises him one further: bar Chinese from buying American real estate, with this simple instruction from Trump: “Coercive diplomacy stops when China forces North Korea to denuclearize.”

Here’s to hoping that there’s something else going behind the scenes on that can’t be discussed publicly by the administration—Herb Meyer’s suggestion from back in the spring that we carry on some covert measures to destabilize or reform the Nork regime from within, while offering the Norks a guarantee of their sovereignty like we did with Cuba in 1962:

For an effort like this to have even a chance of success, we’ll need answers to these questions:

Who are these guys? Presumably our intelligence service knows at least something about the two or three dozen officials who actually run North Korea. Well, which ones are most likely to abandon Kim and work with us? Who are the ones we would like to see take power?

How do we reach them? Of course, we can communicate with these generals over the airwaves, so to speak. That would involve official statements by President Trump and his national security team threatening war, and clearly offering a guarantee of regime survival in exchange for disarmament. But there must also be ways of reaching these officials individually — and very privately.

What precisely do we want them to do? We want the generals to replace Kim and his closest advisors with officials who will work with the U.S. to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, then work with South Korea to establish the kind of sullen but stable peace that existed for decades between West and East Germany.

What help do they need? It’s possible that a serious threat to attack by President Trump, combined with the offer of regime survival in return for disarmament, will be sufficient to push at least some of the generals into taking action. But they may need more help, for instance a massive propaganda campaign to generate support for them before they act by telling the North Korean population how their lives will become immeasurably better once Kim is replaced. The generals also may need the kind of help that only a powerful intelligence service like ours can provide, for instance a covert communications system so they can be in touch with us, and with one another, without being overheard by Pyongyang’s security officials.

This may be as iffy as a military strike, but we’re running out of time and options.

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