The deep fissures over how to solve our knottiest national security problem, North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, were on full display here this afternoon as the government’s top expert said Kim Jong-un “does not intend to negotiate those capabilities away at any price.”
Markus Garlauskas, the North Korea officer for the Director of National Intelligence, told the Strategic Command’s annual deterrence conference that the tubby young leader has diverged from the policies of his predecessors. They were willing to make concessions on their nuclear program — without ever giving it up — in exchange for economic concessions from the international community.
Today, Kim appears unwilling to make those trades for any reason. In addition to the seemingly endless series of ballistic missile tests and the work on miniaturizing nuclear warheads so they can fit on top of an ICBM realistic, Garlauskas said North Korea has invested in “more realistic training,” upgraded its artillery systems and continued to possess cyber capabilities. In addition to the famous cyber attack against Sony Pictures, the DNI expert said North Korea was able to launch “disruptive or destructive cyber attacks, including against US satellites.”
However, in addition to the push to improve his country’s military, Kim is opening it to market forces, creating “a more profit-driven consumerist, materialistic, individualistic” society. As part of that change, information from the outside world is “flowing” into the Hermit Kingdom and the regime “no longer has a monopoly on information.” Because of those factors, “internal changes could come very quickly and very unexpectedly.” That would seem to raise the specter of a North Korean collapse, much as East Germany and its neighbors fell apart with the astonishing breach of the Berlin Wall.
Garlauskas also pointed to non-governmental actors in the private sector — he did not say China or point to Chinese businesses, businessman or banks — who play key roles in helping the north build its nukes and missiles. “Many of them are quite witting about their role by the way,” he noted drily. “Part of any solution to North Korea is they require convincing… to stop doing business with North Korea and at a minimum they can’t profit by doing business with them.”
In the meantime, how do we manage the regime and prevent North Korea from developing a true ICBM capable of lofting a nuclear warhead onto the continental United States?
One of the panelists argued that America’s efforts to deter North Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons and ICBMs have failed, saying America must act even if that means we act alone in our own interests.
Mary Beth Long, former assistant Defense Secretary and advisor to presidential candidate Mitt Romney, argued that we should send the message to Pyongyang that “any missile bigger than a Scud” would be destroyed before liftoff. That message doesn’t mean just a diplomatic cable or a presidential statement, she told me after the session. She thinks we need to act and destroy the missiles on the pad.
“Which side has been most successful at getting what they wanted over the last 60 years of our strategic deterrence and assurances?” Long asked. “We tried to deter North Korea from having a nuclear program. That didn’t work. We tried to deter North Korea from having a nuclear program outside the NPT. That didn’t work” she said. “We tried to deter North Korea from hiding. That didn’t work.” We couldn’t stop them proliferating, either.
US Army THAAD missile defense vehicles arrive at Osan Air Base in South Korea.
The U.S. simply must pursue its own interests and use military force to show Kim Jung-un he faces consequences for his actions, Long concluded: “What speaks louder than words? Action. The alliances have failed to take a single military action in response to any of North Korea’s provocations. What does that tell you about (our) credibility?”
But that sort of unilateral action did not seem to appeal much to South Korean Brig. Gen. Lee Jung Wong, sitting near Long on the panel. He noted that countries “will have competing priorities and, sometimes, competing interests that will limit cooperation,” seeming to echo some of the sentiments expressed during the recent South Korean election that the country should be more self-reliant and reach out to North Korea.
Lee spoke in his prepared remarks of “bringing the Kim regime to its senses rather than its knees,” and stressed that South Korea’s democratic and market-driven society is “more resilient to uncertainty” than its northern brothers.
Lee also made the penetrating point that North Korea has “very successfully” assessed where the American red lines have been, crept right up to — but not over — them and keep “incrementally raising the bar.”
So if you take all these observations, dear reader, what do you think is the approach most likely to achieve the international community’s goal of preventing North Korea from perfecting its ICBMs and threatening the world with nuclear-tipped missiles?