Trump and North Korea: military action will be a disaster, so a more patient, thoughtful solution is required

File 20170420 2401 1hijz4d
North Koreans react as they march past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a military parade.
Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Benjamin Habib, La Trobe University

Pundits often cite the North Korean regime’s crimes against its citizens as proof of Kim Jong-un’s irrationality as a leader. These crimes, as exhaustively documented by former High Court justice Michael Kirby for the UN Human Rights Council, are monstrous and inexcusable. The Conversation

Grave as they are, they do follow a discernible logic from the perspective of Kim’s efforts to consolidate his regime’s hold on power. Perversely, US President Donald Trump’s sabre-rattling plays into Kim’s logic of domestic power that positions the US as a dire threat, justifying the regime’s political repression.

William Perry, US under secretary of state during the Clinton administration, has contended that Trump’s military brinkmanship increases the likelihood of coercing North Korea back to denuclearisation negotiations. This is the ground that a heightened threat of American attack will prompt Kim to recalculate the benefits of continued nuclear proliferation.

But this scenario is only credible if Trump intends following through on the threat. This now appears more questionable given the controversy over the exact location of the USS Carl Vinson.

Having established the foolishness of attacking North Korea in my previous article, I’d now like to prompt discussion on a couple of points.

The first is how the “irrational Kim” rhetoric limits our ability to understand the complexity of the crisis in North Korea. This creates risks that perversely would compromise human rights and humanitarian goals.

The second is to explore other options for improving human rights and humanitarian outcomes for North Koreans beyond the threat and application of military force.

There is much emotion in debates over North Korea, and rightly so. Many North Korenas have experienced much suffering and trauma, as well as the lingering anguish of the Korean War and the separation of families by the partition of Korea.

This is precisely why analysts need to carefully weigh up the risks and rewards of policy choices: to do justice to that suffering, and to ensure we do not recommend misadventures that could add further misery to the North Korean people.

First, don’t make things worse

Considering the risks to civilians posed by a war of regime change, it is difficult to mount a case for war as a vehicle for improving human rights and humanitarian outcomes for the North Korean people.

The discourse on human rights in North Korea has long been framed through the lens of national security. Policy issues become “securitised” when proponents of an issue area frame it as an existential security threat, of high priority, that requires extraordinary measures and rapid action to tackle.

Because such issues become framed in the language of security, military-based solutions often come to dominate policy prescriptions. The “crazy Kim” argument has been central to the security rhetoric around human rights in North Korea. This locks possible solutions into a narrow spectrum focused on military force and coercion.

Just as doctors undertake to “first do no harm”, so too should foreign-policy-makers be wary of strategic choices that carry a high risk of making things worse.

Many Korea analysts have pointed to Seoul’s vulnerability, and the risk to millions of South Koreans, posed by a cascading escalation of US military action into full-scale war. That risk also applies to people living in population centres north of the demilitarised zone.

As the Iraq example again illustrates, removing a dictator in a war of regime change is not a guarantee that human rights and humanitarian outcomes will improve.

According to the Iraq Body Count project, 119,915 Iraqi deaths were verifiably attributed to the conflict in that country from 2003 to 2011. Another study published in PLOS Medicine journal put the death toll at half-a-million Iraqi civilians.

Either way, this death toll and suffering escalated well beyond the scale of human rights abuses and deaths that occurred under Saddam Hussein’s regime. This is not to downplay the suffering of those persecuted under Hussein, but to recognise that the invasion of Iraq made a bad situation worse.

Could we see similar casualty numbers in a war in North Korea?

North Korea is an urbanised country. Approximately 60% of people are concentrated in larger urban centres. In the event of full-scale escalation, air strikes are likely to target critical infrastructure in an effort to weaken the fighting and logistical capacity of the Kim regime. Many of these targets will be in urban centres, exposing civilians to attack.

We should be mindful of the humanitarian cost of the damage of war to the North Korean economy, industry, agriculture and key infrastructure. Targeting of critical energy, transportation and sanitation infrastructure will no doubt weaken North Korea’s fighting capacity, but also eliminate those critical services for civilians. Food production and distribution networks are likely to be disrupted.

For a country that is already chronically food insecure, any damage to food production and distribution systems will have immediate impacts on increasing malnutrition and starvation. Consider that estimates of deaths from North Korea’s “Arduous March” famine in the mid-1990s sit at approximately 600,000 after the collapse of the country’s food production and distribution system.

The elimination of services for civilians is likely to increase the risk of non-combat casualties from malnutrition, disease, and the elements – particularly during North Korea’s harsh winter.

If such a war ends quickly and an occupation force arrives in North Korea to restore security, casualty figures will be still be high. However, some of the longer-term impacts of human insecurity might be avoided.

However, in the event the post-regime environment is unstable, then casualty figures for North Koreans on a scale similar to Iraq become more likely.

Creating an environment for positive human rights outcomes

Removing Kim Jong-un as the head of the regime does not automatically translate into a win for human rights. A lot of post-conflict nation-building has to take place if a war scenario is to transcend the immediate humanitarian disaster and create an environment in which human rights for the North Korean people can be improved.

Human rights are best guaranteed by stable governance, strong political institutions, legal protections, active civil society, and broad material wellbeing. A post-conflict North Korea in which the Kim regime has been removed would effectively be a failed state. None of these facilitating conditions for human rights guarantees would yet exist.

It takes time and resources to cultivate the institutions of a stable state. It requires many years of patient networking, conversation and compromise to develop a social movement that could evolve into an active civil society. It takes even longer to cultivate a political culture in which the citizenry respects the integrity of the political system even when their faction is not in power.

Without this social infrastructure, Kim Jong-un’s removal is likely to lead to the disintegration of North Korea into a failed state, paving the way for the emergence of another authoritarian strongman.

In South Korea, it took more than 40 years after the conclusion of the Korean War, an ongoing American military occupation, and the development of a broad-based pro-democracy movement, for an imperfect democratic political system to evolve.

To suggest this process could be circumvented in North Korea does not accord with the findings of research into democratisation and social movements. These norms, rules and institutions should ideally be developed by the North Korean people over time, not impatiently imposed from outside by other powers.

It is doubtful that Trump – and, more importantly, his core political support base – has the stomach for the massive long-term, high-cost commitment that nation-building in a post-Kim North Korea would entail.

Where to from here?

One could be forgiven for observing the current US-North Korea standoff as a game played by privileged men in suits on either side, gambling with the lives of ordinary citizens. Millions of lives on both sides of the demilitarised zone and beyond are placed at unnecessary risk through such high-stakes brinkmanship.

It is easy for leaders to talk tough on non-proliferation and human rights enforcement. But it is quite another to bring about international norms in these fields in such a tricky strategic context as the Korean Peninsula.

Unfortunately, Trump’s penchant for military posturing does little to increase the likelihood of denuclearising North Korea, or improving human rights outcomes for its citizens.

Instead, the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric inadvertently legitimises North Korea’s justifications for its nuclear weapons program, along with the domestic coercive apparatus that persecutes North Korean citizens.

Guaranteeing human rights in North Korea will ultimately require new institutions, new laws, a domestic civil society, cultural change, and a process of justice for past abuses.

This is a project far beyond the scope of military action, requiring patience, innovative thinking and disciplined strategic restraint on the part of policymakers. And they must recognise the unique strategic circumstances of the Korean Peninsula.

Benjamin Habib, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Learning to live with a nuclear North Korea?

Image 20170403 16530 bleogj


Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

North Korea has been on a long march to acquire a usable nuclear weapon. Since 2011, when Kim Jong-un replaced his father at the head of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the pace of that march has quickened markedly. The Conversation

Contrary to claims made by Nikki Halley, the new US ambassador to the UN, North Korea’s leader is not crazy – he has decidedly rational motives. Kim wants nuclear weapons to provide security from a world that he believes threatens North Korea’s existence.

So far, North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests – in 2006, 2009, 2013 and two in 2016. The decision to acquire nuclear weapons was initially prompted by the perception that without such a deterrent, North Korea risked Iraq’s fate: invasion and regime change.

Although North Korea has one of the largest militaries in the world – its army alone has more than 1 million soldiers – it is an antiquated fighting force whose principal advantage is its proximity to South Korea. Its ability to win a fight against a technologically sophisticated opponent is widely questioned. Nuclear weapons offset that weakness markedly.

An independent nuclear capacity would also reduce the country’s dependence on China. Beijing has long believed that North Korea is a useful buffer between it and an American-allied South Korea. Pyongyang realises, however, that were Beijing to change its attitude then it would find itself dangerously exposed.

North Korea perceives it is isolated in a world that is hostile to its existence. However loathsome the regime may be and however badly it misallocates resources to bolster the ruling elite, the reason for acquiring nuclear weapons is entirely rational: they are a vital means for North Korea to protect itself.

Kim has made the acquisition of nuclear weapons a core priority. It is central to government propaganda, figures prominently in nationalist iconography, and indeed the country’s nuclear standing is now enshrined in the constitution.

Most analysts believe North Korea has not yet mastered all three parts of the “nuclear trinity” required to make a usable weapon. This entails first developing a controlled nuclear explosion. The second is miniaturising and hardening that technology so it can work reliably while attached to a means of delivery. The final step is an accurate and reliable delivery system, such as a ballistic missile.

North Korea definitely has the first step and is getting close to both the second and third steps. Barring either a change in heart from the regime about its nuclear ambition or some kind of effective international intervention, North Korea is very likely to have a functioning nuclear weapon within a few years – if not sooner.

The acceleration of the nuclear program – three tests since 2013 compared with two tests between 2006 and 2012 – reflects most obviously the higher priority Kim has placed on it.

Development of missile technology – the third step in the nuclear trinity – has also increased in tempo, with more than 20 tests since January 2016. The recent acceleration is an attempt not just to “sprint” to the finish but also to take advantage of the sense of uncertainty in the region.

North Korea’s more adventurous tendencies are most effectively kept in check when the US and China are able to align their interests and policies. That has most assuredly not been the case over the past year or so.

During his “reassurance tour”, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the old policies toward North Korea had failed – and “everything was on the table”. Many interpreted this as a new appetite for strategic risk from the incoming administration.

As with other aspects of America’s Asia policy, Tillerson was light on detail about what new approach Washington might pursue. One assumes it was a major point of debate in Seoul and Beijing. But speculation abounds that pre-emptive attacks may be being considered more seriously than in the past.

The problem with managing North Korea’s nuclear ambition is that there are so few options, and none of them are appealing. As an isolated economy that cares little for international public opinion there are precious few carrots and sticks.

Sanctions have had some effect, but they largely punish the population and not the regime. And they are regularly flouted by China on an opportunistic basis.

Due to the compressed geography of the peninsula, military action would come at a heavy price – North Korea would retaliate by unleashing massive force on South Korea. Seoul is within 60 kilometres of the border with North Korea; pre-emption would be extraordinarily risky.

North Korea will be the most pressing issue at this week’s Donald Trump-Xi Jinping summit. What can be done? There are three main options.

The first is to somehow convince North Korea to step back from its nuclear ambitions, possibly using the stalled Six-Party Talks framework. Given how important it has become to the leadership, both as a security goal and as a sense of national purpose and identity, this seems highly unlikely.

Many once assumed North Korea had started down the nuclear path as an elaborate means to receive international aid. That is, it didn’t actually want them as such, but sought them as a means to extort international financial support. This no longer appears to be the case, if it ever was.

The second option is to coerce North Korea into giving them up. This is equally fraught.

Not only is the risk of major war significant, but even short of war, more targeted and better-enforced sanctions seem unlikely to halt the run to the finish line.

The third and least-worst of the options is a tried and tested policy but one that is politically unsavoury. That is, to engage with the regime, bilaterally or in the Six-Party mode. The aim here would be to retard but probably not prevent its nuclear weapon development while devising ways of learning to live with a nuclear North Korea.

Well-managed deterrence can produce a more stable strategic environment in northeast Asia than has existed in recent years. Engagement could also lead to reduced tension, greater stability and possibly even economic reform in North Korea.

Of one thing we can be sure: North Korea acts rationally, and the one outcome above all it wants to avoid is its own demise.

Nick Bisley, Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

North Korea: Persecution News Update

The links below are to articles reporting on persecution news from North Korea (the most recent are at the top).

For more visit:

North Korea: Persecution News Update

The links below are to articles reporting on persecution news from north Korea.

For more visit:

North Korea: Persecution News Update

The links below are to articles reporting on persecution news from North Korea (the most recent are at the top).

For more visit:

North Korea: Persecution News Update

The link below is to an article reporting on persecution news from North Korea.

For more visit: