Humphrey Hawksley examines new thinking on how to neutralise the Pyongyang regime without military action or antagonising China

The summer of 2017 has yet again seen the ramping up of tensions over North Korea. Its missile tests showed that this last stronghold of extreme Soviet-style communism is getting closer to possessing a nuclear weapon that could reach the United States. How close remains unknown, including among its own scientists.

Between February and August, North Korea fired more than 20 missiles, including one in July that flew 2,300 miles into space and travelled for more than 600 miles. Pyongyang also named an area around the American island of Guam, more than 2,000 miles away, as being next on its target list. For its part, the US deployed three carrier groups to the region. The Pentagon refreshed plans that range from air strikes to full-scale invasion, and Donald Trump warned that US patience with North Korea was over.

There is no doubt that American and South Korean firepower could quickly defeat North Korea in a war, but at a cost. Scenarios range from the destruction of the South Korean capital, Seoul, to military confrontation with China or a catastrophic humanitarian crisis and civil war.

Against that risk, the cycle of stalemate and brinkmanship may continue for a while. But North Korea will press on with its nuclear weapons development. At some stage, the status quo will splinter in a way that draws in China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States.

At present, all are ill-prepared both for the challenges on the ground, and for the havoc it could wreak on relations between the big powers, relations which are already fractious. North Korea is China’s ally, and Beijing and Washington are already at odds over control of the Asia-Pacific region. No agreement is in place on how to deal with any of the crises that are expected to result from a North Korean collapse.

There is no doubt that US and South Korean firepower could quickly defeat North Korea in a war

‘There is not a great deal of planning on this,’ said Terence Roehrig of the US Naval War College. ‘It’s a delicate issue, because planning for a collapse means you may be interested in encouraging one, and that could be diplomatically problematic.’

A war game at the US Naval War College in 2013 found that with an unplanned and violent collapse, it would take 90,000 troops 56 days to hunt down and secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons material across about a hundred sites. During that time, desperate generals and scientists could distribute weapons-grade material to terrorist groups and rogue states around the world.

Against that scenario, US and South Korean analysts have been looking for alternatives that focus on convincing a critical number of senior North Korean officials that they would benefit from regime change and Korean unification, rather than being harmed by it. It would be a challenging psychological task, to say the least: taking people embedded in North Korea’s warped ideology, and switching their mindset to one of understanding and trusting South Korea and the US.

Like Vietnam and Germany, North Korea was divided after the Second World War. It fell under the control of a cultist totalitarian system, now run by the third generation of the same family – the young Kim Jong-un is the grandson of Kim Il-sung, the founder. Far from being a political moderniser, he has shown himself to be at least as ruthless and determined as his father and grandfather. Hopes that an Iran-style agreement could be made to neutralise the nuclear programme have dimmed.

LOST CAUSE: Barack Obama (l), George W Bush (c) & Bill Clinton all tried and failed to make deals with North Korea
LOST CAUSE: Barack Obama (l), George W Bush (c) & Bill Clinton all tried and failed to make deals with North Korea

Each of the three previous US presidents tried to make deals with North Korea, Barack Obama in 2012, George W Bush in 2007 and Bill Clinton in 1994. All failed. The most significant, the 1994 Agreed Framework, came about because North Korea was close to building a nuclear weapon, and the US stood on the brink of attacking it. Pyongyang agreed to shut down its nuclear reactors in exchange for the US sending oil and building replacement reactors that did not produce weapons-grade fuel. The aim was to ‘move toward full normalisation of political and economic relations’.

That agreement collapsed in 2003, when the US accused North Korea of violations. There has been much debate whether more could have been done to keep Pyongyang onside, but this was a time when America boasted of fighting wars on two fronts, and bringing democracy to North Korea as well as Afghanistan and Iraq.

While America became bogged down in the latter two countries, Pyongyang built its nuclear bomb. It now has about 10, each with 5kg of plutonium. The regime has watched closely the fates of the rulers of Libya, Ukraine and Iraq, each of which surrendered their nuclear weapons programmes, only to be overthrown by a US invasion or a Western-supported uprising. This has made North Korea adamant that its nuclear arsenal is not for negotiation.

Hopes that an Iran-style agreement could be made to neutralise the nuclear programme have dimmed

Though China would not accept military action by the US and South Korea, American analysts believe it could tolerate other means of breaking the North Korean regime. These are known in Beijing as ‘non-peaceful measures’, whereby sanctions or a state of siege prompt high-level defections. This is how Beijing eventually fell to Mao Tse-tung’s Communist army in 1949, and an option that it retains for eventual unification with Taiwan.

Drawing on lessons from the Iraq invasion and Germany’s unification, US and South Korean defence analysts are examining how to accommodate North Koreans in what would most probably be a United Nations or South Korean-led unification. Any plan has to be robust enough to cope with a North Korean collapse, whether it comes about peacefully or through conflict and violence.

In Iraq, ‘de-Baathification’ saw the army disbanded and most officials sacked, fuelling an insurgency that is still ongoing. In East Germany, by contrast, though most generals were relieved of their commands, they were allowed an advisory role. Soldiers were given early retirement and a pension at the age of 50.

America’s Rand Corporation, which specialises in security issues, has published a study entitled Preparing North Korean Elites for Unification. It examines how to persuade North Korean officials to comply with regime change, rather than fighting it. ‘Propaganda indoctrinates North Korean élites to believe that South Korean-led unification would be a disaster for them,’ said Bruce W Bennett, author of the report. ‘Successful unification will likely require that North Korean élites feel the unification will in fact be good for them.’

LIVING IN DREAD Following the 2014 execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and others, North Koreans’ fear of Kim Jong-un has grown
LIVING IN DREAD: Following the 2014 execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and others, North Koreans’ fear of Kim Jong-un has grown

In recent years, unhappiness with Kim Jong-un has grown. Following the execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in 2014, and other senior figures, there is a widespread fear that anyone could be next. A fine balance would have to be struck between keeping senior regime figures happy with jobs and money, and bringing to account those to blame for a brutal dictatorship. As more evidence of atrocities comes to light, pressure will grow from North Korean victims and international human rights groups for the guilty to be punished.

According to Bennett, North Korea’s most influential class comprises some 100,000 out of a population of 26 million, including 1,200 generals in a military of 1.2 million. ‘Generals who think that unification will hurt them may also be able to abort the unification process by taking military action before their units are dissolved,’ he said. ‘On the other hand, if the combined Korean government is able to co-opt these generals, they could assist with the safety and security needed in the unification process.’

Ideas to lure senior figures toward regime change include making movies that show Korean unification in a positive light, striking up relationships with North Korean overseas workers, and having a clear plan to win over officials worried about securing their status, jobs, money and families.

‘Many North Korean élites would likely support serious resistance against a unified Korean government,’ said Bennett. ‘A favourable outcome to unification would depend on convincing Northern elites that unification will be something they can live with — not something unacceptably bad.’

Though such ideas might seem tenuous, the alternative scenarios, of war and nuclear proliferation, are too bleak to contemplate.

Humphrey Hawksley is a former BBC Asia Correspondent. His next book, Asian Waters: Chinese Expansion and the Shifting Balance of Power, is published in April 2018

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