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How To Play The Long Game With North Korea In America’s Interest


Vice President Mike Pence hinted at the prospect of talks with North Korea while in South Korea for the Winter Olympics. Speaking to the Washington Post, Pence said that while “no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” which means “the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify,” although talks with the North were still a possibility.

“If you want to talk, we’ll talk,” the vice president said. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson backed up Pence’s statement: “We’ve said for some time it’s really up to the North Koreans to decide when they’re ready to engage with us in a sincere way, a meaningful way … We’ll just have to wait and see.” With Tillerson and Pence seeming to condone a no-precondition summit, it is likely that President Trump is feeling talkative as well.

This is a potentially significant development. A war with the North would almost certainly result in the death of tens of thousands, even millions. North Korea has artillery positions spread across its side of the 38th parallel, and well within range of South Korea’s capitol Seoul, home to 10 million people. Those artillery positions would be almost impossible to destroy before South Korea was sufficiently shelled to bits. And this grim estimate assumes we can take out North Korea’s nukes before they can be used.

Those lobbying for a hard line on North Korea claim to care for the people in the North and justify their hope of regime change by highlighting this population’s plight. Indeed, the people in the North live under constant threat from Kim. But if we care about the people in the North, we should be wary of a military conflict that could incinerate millions of these victims of totalitarianism, along with U.S. citizens and military personnel, South Koreans, and others living in the region.

How Talks Can Be Productive Instead of Another Delay

Many would counter with saying that “talks” have been tried in the past. Indeed, there is voluminous history of the North coming to the table, obtaining generous aid, and continuing to develop its nuclear program. Won’t talks lead to the North yet again duping America and its allies?

Entering talks, America and its allies must give up the notion that the Kim regime will give up its nuclear program for any sort of aid package. The North’s nuke program has consumed a gargantuan portion of its meager resources, because the Kim regime sees the program as nothing less than its singular lifeline.

This is also why “maximum pressure,” no matter how harmful to the North Korean economy, is highly unlikely to spur the Kim regime into giving up the program. These sanctions may be having an effect, but cornering Kim could backfire. We want the cash-starved North Koreans to export cigarettes, not nuclear weapons technology.

What can talks accomplish? While the prospects of sanctions and threats of military action convincing North Korea to give up its weapons are slim-to-none, our primary interest of avoiding nuclear war can best be achieved through hard-nosed deterrence and diplomacy. In other words, America needs to play the long game. Despotic regimes like we see in North Korea always eventually collapse and die, or choose to moderate and reform. As the global hegemon, and as a strong and free society, we can more than afford to play this long game.

What Playing the Long Game Looks Like Now

If we do play the long game, what does immediate diplomacy have to offer? We can start by recognizing America and North Korea both want to avoid bloodshed. The United States doesn’t want a massive loss of innocent human life. From Kim’s perspective, any conflict would almost certainly lead to his own demise.

The North is also beginning to place a greater focus on prosperity and economic growth. Already, some market-based reforms have been enacted, such as allowing workers and managers to keep at least some of the fruits of their own labor. Pointing this out isn’t meant to applaud the brutal Kim regime, which still presides over a poverty-stricken command economy. But this is meant to say that, over time, greater wealth and reform could come from inside North Korea, which would reduce its permanent war footing. This would also directly benefit our ally South Korea.

Does all this mean that America sits idly by and does nothing to contain the North? Not at all. Deterrence means America continues to support our South Korean partners, including by prompting them to build up their own defense capabilities.

Next, America’s intelligence community needs to do a far better job of tracking North Korea’s illicit overseas revenue schemes, on which the country is still hugely dependent. For example, several Middle Eastern and African countries that are ostensibly allies of America have been turning a blind eye to North Korean slave labor on their soil. These ties need to be documented, so the United States can withhold foreign aid in the event that these ties do not cease.

The bottom line is that there is no good military solution in North Korea. Playing the long game of strong deterrence (peace through strength) and hard-nosed diplomacy is not only in America’s interest, but such an approach has consistently worked in the past for our free society. A preventive war will never be the answer.