a radical proposal for the North Korea standoff

Philip Bobbit from Lawfare says the current strategies of the U.S. and China governments towards North Korea cannot succeed.

Our current approach to the North Korea problem is a combination of both kinetic and diplomatic threats occasionally alternating with the offer of incentives. This approach cannot succeed. There is nothing the U.S. can do to North Korea that will lead to its renunciation of its nuclear weapons program. North Korea—even before it has developed the capability to strike the U.S. homeland with nuclear weapons—already poses an unacceptable risk of retaliation against our allies in response to an American military intervention. Moreover, there is nothing the U.S. can do for North Korea that might induce it to denuclearize because the Kim regime is convinced that, for domesticreasons, the country can only be assured of remaining in power by keeping its country on a war footing against the United States. Finally, there is nothing the international community, including China, can do to North Korea in the way of greater sanctions, or for North Korea by abating sanctions. Neither action could possibly persuade the Kim regime to give up its nuclear weapons because the regime has concluded that only its threats to others have preserved it thus far.

His solution, if I understand it correctly, is for China to agreed to repel any U.S. invasion, using any nuclear weapons if necessary. China technically has agreed to repel any invasion of North Korea already, but to use nuclear weapons only in retaliation for a nuclear attack. It sounds crazy, but I get the logic that the key to appeasing a paranoid dictator could be to address the paranoia directly.

There is, however, an available strategy that has not been considered and may promise success: a nuclear guarantee for the North Korean regime from China. If China were to give a credible nuclear guarantee to North Korea in the case of a U.S. invasion or preemptive strike against Pyongyang, there would be little point in North Korea risking the survival of its regime by developing long-range nuclear weapons. Such a policy should not be confused with the current mutual defense pact between North Korea and China, one cornerstone of which is China’s no-first-use policy. From Kim’s point of view, there is much security to be gained by such a guarantee of deterrence against the U.S. and much security to be lost if North Korea continues its present course when further technological revolutions in the U.S. render the North Korean arsenal ever more vulnerable. Our aim must be to reorient Kim Jong Un’s paranoia, making him more afraid of losing a unique opportunity for security in the eyes of his own people than he is afraid of dependence on China.

It seems like a simpler, and equally logical, approach on its face would be for the U.S. to pledge to never invade North Korea in exchange for North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons. The U.S. could withdraw some weapons from Asia in return, which would be a good idea anyway. I guess the problem with this is that U.S. promises would not be credible in North Korean eyes. Or, to be more cynical, they need their population to fear imminent U.S. attack in order to keep them under control.

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