WASHINGTON – Let’s be honest. The world would be a better place if a revolutionary tribunal in the near future sent North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and his henchmen to the gallows. Kim’s subjects are so malnourished that North Koreans are notably shorter than their South Korean cousins. The state’s gulags are so large, you can see them from space. Survivors of those camps have testified that fellow prisoners withered away from starvation.
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights has acknowledged the horror. A 2014 report from that office says that inside of North Korea “crimes against humanity” have been committed as a result of the state’s policy. These include “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
Crimes against humanity generally cost a regime its legitimacy, if not its sovereignty. And yet most national security professionals would regard the collapse of the North Korean slave state as a calamity. The reason for this is simple: all the nuclear weapons and material. A 2015 study from the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies estimated North Korea possessed 10 to 16 nuclear weapons, and will possess 20 to 100 such weapons by 2020. This says nothing of the highly enriched nuclear fuel the state has produced or the mobile rockets and longer-range missiles to launch the warheads.
Trying to secure all this after a chaotic collapse or overthrow of the Kim regime would be a nightmare. Gen. Raymond Thomas, who heads U.S. Special Operations Command, called a regime collapse in North Korea a “worst case scenario,” at a conference hosted last week by the Institute for the Study of War. “In the event of the implosion of the region, we’d have the loose nuke dilemma on an industrial scale,” the general said, describing it as a “vertical track meet between the Chinese and the South Koreans in terms of securing the nukes.”
In this sense, North Korea’s nukes are the Kim family’s insurance policy. Since the Clinton administration, the U.S. and the international community have been willing to extend the life of the regime in exchange for (ultimately broken) promises about its reactors and enrichment facilities. And while the U.S. has also placed sanctions on North Korea at times, in the end the goal of U.S. policy has been regime preservation.
Secretary of State John Kerry summed up this approach earlier this month. “We have made overture after overture to the dictator of North Korea,” he said, after the regime’s fifth nuclear test. “We have made it very clear to him that we’re prepared to talk about peace, about peace on the peninsula, about food assistance, about normal relationship with the world, about a nonaggression pact — I mean a host of different ingredients — if he will simply acknowledge he is prepared to come to the table and talk about denuclearization and his responsibilities to the world — not to us, to the whole world.”
The problem with this approach is that it’s a sucker’s bet. If Kim “will simply acknowledge” he’s ready to talk, the international community will lavish him with material support and unearned recognition.
A far better use of U.S. diplomacy is to quietly push China and South Korea to begin planning with the U.S. for the day the North Korean regime falls. It’s a long shot. Gen. Thomas acknowledged last week that there are no channels between the U.S. and China on special operations. And the U.S. has good reasons to mistrust China, an aggressive cyber adversary that is unilaterally claiming territory through militarized artificial islands. What’s more, China and North Korea share an ideological attachment as two of the five remaining communist states on the planet.
That said, North Korea is a time bomb for China as well as for the U.S. Beijing is worried about refugees coming over its border, and loose nukes would be as much a danger to China as to America’s East Asian allies. This year Beijing supported U.N. sanctions against North Korea at the U.N. Security Council.
None of this is to say the U.S. or North Korea’s neighbors can or should topple the Kim regime. Popular uprisings are impossible to predict, and the hard work of persuading people to stop obeying their oppressors is best left to outside groups and not governments.
But North Korea’s rickety tyranny won’t last forever. Even the most imposing dictatorships prove in the end to be hollow. Today, many North Koreans are gaining access to the outside world, including through smuggled USB sticks with South Korean soap operas and other illegal bits of outside culture.
The liberation of these people should not have to open a nuclear Pandora’s box. Today the U.S. helps to prop up an open-air prison to protect the world from an apocalyptic arsenal built by its wardens. It’s past time for the U.S. to begin planning for the day when it’s no longer obliged to honor this foul bargain.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast.
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