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POV: Weighing Our Options for Dealing with North Korea

Diplomacy, not brinkmanship, is the answer

Kim Jong-un

Photo courtesy Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

North Korea has proven that even “a tinpot dictator” like Kim Jong-un can guide an extremely poor country into nuclear weapons possession. While some analysts argue that additional sanctions—more targeted and thus presumably more effective—constitute the ultimate solution for the North Korean situation, doubts remain about their effectiveness.

Since North Korea is neither a democracy nor a state integrated into the global economy, sanctions have so far failed to hurt. Any military option carries the real possibility of becoming a nuclear war that would involve not just the North Korean and US capitals of Pyongyang and Washington, but also American allies—Japan and South Korea—and adversaries—Russia and China. High-pitched threats and efforts to caricature Kim Jong-un, such as President Trump dubbing him the “Rocket Man,” can only cause further damage to any possibility of finding a diplomatic solution.

This brings to the fore a key predicament regarding the North Korean crisis. What is meant by a solution and what are our policy options? Is it learning to live with North Korean nuclear arms? The United States has been doing this quite well since the first North Korean test in 2006. Is it learning to tolerate North Korean missile tests? This is a tough one since the tests have effectively proven North Korea’s ability to target US territory. Is it denuclearization, i.e., forcing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons? This option is not possible without a regime change, which in turn is not possible without US military action, and such action might draw multiple countries in the region into a nuclear war.

What are the risks posed by North Korea and its nuclear weapons? Pyongyang has the long-term goal of uniting the two Koreas—split as an outcome of the Korean War, which saw North Korea lose a million or more lives. The North Korean regime has also vowed the destruction of the United States, which makes it hard to ignore, especially given its rapid progress in missile development and its indigenous capability of producing UDMH rocket fuel. However, the “Korean Missile Crisis” does not stop there.

The current situation has the potential to easily become part of a larger “rogue state nuclear crisis,” with Pyongyang becoming a major illicit supplier of technologies and materials related to weapons of mass destruction and missile technologies. It already has a history of providing nuclear reactor technologies and chemical weapons to the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad—a regime that is believed to have conducted a sarin attack against its own civilians this past April. Last month, Israel reportedly attacked a Syrian chemical weapons production site, which allegedly benefits from North Korean involvement. Israel had earlier attacked and destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor at Deir ez-Zor, which was also built with North Korean assistance in 2007.

As uncertainty continues over the Trump administration’s recertification of the Iran nuclear deal, North Korea’s close ties with Iran on ballistic missile development are reason for additional concern. The two countries have had a history of missile cooperation since the 1990s and are now believed to be cooperating on submarine-launched cruise missiles. Moreover, North Korea is allegedly becoming Iran’s chief source of military technologies, thus raising concerns of a Pyongyang-Tehran military/nuclear nexus opposed to US interests and those of its allies. Such a possibility is not unlikely. If Libya taught leaders with proliferation motives that giving up nukes is a bad idea, the North Korean case might show how the rogues can strike back.

This is why brinkmanship, showmanship, and deliberate ambiguity, as pursued by the current US administration, will not alleviate the crisis. It is a complex, multilayered, multiplayer game that can be contained over time only through multilateral and bilateral diplomacy, because what is at stake is the immediate possibility of a nuclear war on the one hand, and the long-term possibility of a proliferation supply chain expanding to Iran, Syria, and elsewhere, on the other. A concerted US strategy is needed, one that will allow us to work in concert with our European and Asian allies to address the crisis.

Jayita Sarkar, a Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies assistant professor of international relations, can be reached at jsarkar@bu.edu.  

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.eduBU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.


12 Comments on POV: Weighing Our Options for Dealing with North Korea

  • Melinde on 10.16.2017 at 5:39 am

    While sanctions have delayed North Korea’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, these delays may collide with the American political system. Say the desired delivery systems take two years rather than two months to develop. This places us in late 2019 when the election cycle will demand strong motivations for people to vote for or against the candidates. Historically, this confluence has been bad news. In wartime Americans support their warriors by keeping those who send them to war in office.

  • John Whalen on 10.16.2017 at 5:45 am

    Sure let’s continue the Democrat policy of appeasement which has led us to NK having ballistic missles and hydrogen bombs. Yes keep it up and you will find yourself in a similar situation with Iran in the not too distant future.

    • John on 10.16.2017 at 8:57 am

      Absolutely agree with you. Diplomacy has gotten us into this mess. NK prints counterfit US dollars and devalues our currency, tortures their own people in labor camps, and now is a nuclear threat. Time to take out this Teletubby before he gets an ICBM capable of reaching the US mainland.

  • Web on 10.16.2017 at 8:00 am

    You lay out a case showing that half a century of “diplomacy” has brought us a rogue nation armed with nuclear weapons and ICBM technology who is sharing their weapons technology with other nations. Yet your only suggestion is to keep pursuing the same failed strategy that produced the current situation. That defies logic and simply invites more of the same result.

  • Andrew Wolfe on 10.16.2017 at 8:48 am

    Not sure how Pyongyang firing missiles over Japan makes Trump the perpetrator of “brinksmanship.”

    • George on 10.16.2017 at 9:11 am

      Haha I know. Liberals find a way to make everything Trump’s fault. It’s raining today…darn that Trump. Stubbed my toe… Trump’s fault.

  • Sean on 10.16.2017 at 9:06 am

    So basically the left-wing liberal academics think the US should keep pursuing a failed policy in North Korea. Kim only understands one thing, a show of force. If some of our destroyers parked off the Korean peninsula fired a few missiles at them the US wouldn’t have to worry about their weapons program anymore.

  • Andrew Kinney on 10.16.2017 at 12:30 pm

    War in Korea means the deaths of > 100,000 South Koreans and US servicemembers, and maybe more than a million. I know, I served there in the 2d Division. NK conventional artillery alone could generate the smaller number of deaths, nukes would cause the higher. Sure, if NK fires a nuke at somebody, obliterate them. But attacking them without cause makes us the aggressor and makes us responsible for all those deaths. Kim is not suicidal; just like Stalin and Mao, he will not nuke the US, because he knows the response will end his life and his regime. Deterrence worked for 70 years – why are we giving up on it now? By the way, have any of you hawkish commentators spent 20+ years in the military like I have?

    • LarryO on 10.16.2017 at 1:19 pm

      Bravo Andrew, and thank you for your service! The war hawks seem to think the only casualties will be North Koreans, or that Kim will back down if the US blows up something of his first. I saw a 60 Minutes piece on the Korean peninsular and the DMZ. The US military leadership onsite and in the immediate line-of-fire concurs on a death toll of at least 100,000 in the first few minutes of a military conflict.

      • Andrew Wolfe on 10.18.2017 at 1:06 pm

        There are no war hawks. I understand there is a fairy tale in cloud-cuckoo land in which Donald Trump is the incarnation of either evil or insanity or both, and the residents use Trump as a weathervane to show which way is wrong. I don’t live there.

        Whatever the bravado, Trump and his staff know as well as everyone else that 100k figure would be just the beginning of a bloodbath. Few minutes? I believe it. We would quickly be praying that it not go past the 10 million mark. We would also be terrified at the thought of China entering war with us, especially after they’ve scavenged our military and intelligence files through years of cyber warfare. We would be hoping that Iran wouldn’t leverage our commitment in the Pacific to follow through on its stated goal of “wiping Israel from the map.”

        I see North Korea as the primary culpable threat in this looming disaster, and I can’t chalk up Kim’s insane destruction within his own country as “pragmatic” abominations like Stalin’s or Mao’s. I think he won’t even blink at losing half his soldiers. This isn’t Trump’s fault. Obama contributed, and so did Bill Clinton’s capitulation in the 1990’s. It’s partly due to China’s support for NoKo. But this is all ultimately the responsibility and the culpability of the North Korean leadership.

    • Melinde on 10.19.2017 at 9:56 am

      Thank you, Andrew. My father served 1945-47 in Korea. My son is a college professor in the South. I have not been to the North, but a few North-South reunions fueled good press when Kim first took office. As in Vietnam, the Koreans were one people within living memory. “Obliterate them” will also be costly. Shame on us if we fire first, I think we agree. If Kim is truly dangerous, he is attacking in other ways with other delivery systems.

  • Kim just wants world's attention on 12.04.2017 at 12:23 pm

    Kim Jong-un of North Korea is not stupid. Facing US military hostility stationed in the South and in East Asia in general, he needs nuclear weapon as a powerful deterrence against American’s military threat. He knows that Americans are not afraid of conventional weapons in a war. His logic is simply: if he can deliver nuclear bombs over the sky to North America, Uncle Sam would think twice before attacking him. With the capability of long range delivery the potential war becomes non-local therefore he can project his power over America. In achieving this goal, Kim Jong-un so far is successful in implementing his strategic plan. Now, on the other hand, it seems that America today is feeling the threat of Kim’s nuclear power build-up and thinking about destroying him before it is too late. But why? Why can’t Kim Jong-un have nuclear weapons? Let him have the toy. If he is not going to use it, what good is it to have it (besides as a deterrence)? And we know he is not going to use it knowing too well that if he did use it first that would be the end day of his regime and his life on earth. Developing and maintaining nuclear weaponry would cost money and resources. Having a nuclear bomb would not put food on the table. That would apply to America too. Maintain the status quo is the best policy. Attacking North Korea first would cost tremendous amount of lives on both sides as noted by above reader. The best US foreign policy dealing with Kim Jong-un would be completely ignoring him, no matter what weapons he has. Avoiding war with North Korea would be good for America, good for South Korea, and good for US stock market and its overall economy.

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