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“Seiron” column: The U.S.’s options in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear arms, missiles

By Tokyo International University Prof. Tomohide Murai


President Donald Trump called North Korea “a hell ruled by a cult” in his speech to the ROK National Assembly. However, North Korea’s leaders are rational players who are using every means to evade sanctions, in order to sustain a regime not supported by its people.


If North Korea becomes a peaceful and democratic country, as the international community is demanding, the Kim dynasty will collapse as it is not supported by the people. The U.S. and China are also taking rational actions to maximize their national interests. If all the players behave rationally, it will be possible to apply theories of international relations.


Preventive war with China’s consent


It is impossible for North Korea to become a major military power surpassing the U.S. at present or in the future, so it will not have the opportunity to wage a preventive or opportunistic war that could take place during a major power shift in international relations. However, if the U.S. really comes to regard North Korea’s nuclear arms and missiles as a serious threat, it is possible that it might wage a preventive war against a weak North Korea.


Nevertheless, when considering the costs and benefits of a war with North Korea for the U.S., a major war resulting in tens or hundreds of thousands of casualties would not be an option. China’s joining the war would be the greatest risk for the U.S. There would be no benefits on the Korean Peninsula that would exceed the costs of a U.S.-China war.


Theoretically, when a weak nation is forced into a corner by a strong nation to an extent that threatens its survival, there is a possibility that it will wage a war in desperation.


For now, China’s will to protect North Korea remains strong, so North Korea is able to count on China’s assistance and has no worry of self-destruction as a result of economic sanctions. Therefore, it is unlikely that North Korea would wage such a war. The only conceivable preventive war would be one waged by the U.S. with China’s consent.


Kim Jong Un unlikely to give up nuclear arms


China’s strategic goals with regard to North Korea are: 1) protect an anti-U.S., pro-China North Korea; and 2) avoid war with the U.S.


On the other hand, the U.S.’s strategic goals are: 1) make North Korea abandon its nuclear arms and long-range ballistic missiles; and 2) avoid war with China.


Therefore, the way to meet the two countries’ strategic goals is for North Korea to become an anti-U.S., pro-China country that abandons its nuclear arms and long-range missiles.


Would it be possible for Kim Jong Un to abandon his development of nuclear arms and long-range missiles? A North Korea without nuclear arms would only be a poor little country in Northeast Asia that the world would ignore. It might be absorbed by South Korea, which has 50 times more economic power and modern military capability, in the near future. North Korea’s absorption by South Korea would mean the collapse of the Kim dynasty. Nuclear weapons are the only means by which North Korea can occupy a position of advantage over the ROK and they are the DPRK’s only diplomatic card. Therefore, it is not possible to expect Kim Jong Un to change his policies.


Goals that can be achieved by establishing a new regime


Changing the leadership is a shortcut to changing policies. Since it will be difficult to get rid of Kim Jong Un through dialogue, the use of force will be inevitable. The problem here is the cost. If a large-scale war breaks out, this may result in tens or hundreds of thousands of casualties even if nuclear weapons are not used. The strategy for using force with minimal cost is to “end the war before it begins.” Furthermore, all strategies will require an agreement between the U.S. and China.


In other words, the following strategies are conceivable: 1) Removal of Kim Jong Un with a coup d’etat by members of the inner court of the Kim dynasty (through clandestine operations by the U.S. and China). The new dictatorial regime would condemn him and change his nuclear and missile policies. 2) Removal of Kim with a coup d’etat by the pro-China elements in the North Korean armed forces (through China’s instigation). The pro-China military regime would change the policies. 3) removal of Kim through the U.S. military’s “target killing.” However, North Korea’s power elite would be kept intact to minimize upheaval. A new dictatorial regime consisting of the Workers Party of Korea and the Korean People’s Army with the tacit approval of the U.S. and China would change Kim’s policies.


Furthermore, the U.S., ROK, and Chinese armed forces would be deployed in North Korea to maintain public order right after the special operations. Chinese forces would also move into North Korea on the pretext of the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty.


Since senior North Korean military cadres are fully aware that they cannot possibly win a war against the U.S. forces, they would opt for toppling the Kim regime rather than go to war with the U.S. military for their own survival, so they would not offer any resistance. In any case, Kim would  not have an opportunity to launch nuclear weapons or missiles.


With the collapse of the Kim regime and the establishment of a new regime that abandons nuclear arms and long-range missiles, the U.S. would have achieved its strategic goals. With a more submissive North Korean regime, China would be able to strengthen its influence on the Korean Peninsula, thus resulting in greater stability there. (Slightly abridged)

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