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Resolving North Korea Without “Fire and Fury”

“They that sow the wind, shall reap the Whirlwind” is a proverbial phrase taken from the Old Testament, the Book of Hosea 8:7, which alludes to the notion that those who pursue false idols shall face the severity of God’s judgment. There is no better phrase that captures the current reality of American arms control policy with North Korea, which for decades has been built on the dual objectives of containment and regime change.

This policy has collapsed in the face of sustained North Korean recalcitrance and defiance; North Korea today has a strategic nuclear weapons capability that is firmly attached to the survival of its regime. Any effort to remove the North Korean regime will result in the employment of these weapons in its defense; any effort to forcefully eliminate these weapons through military force will likewise result in their employment. Given the horrific consequences of any such action, that awful truth is that there simply is no military solution worthy of the name.

It is a little understood reality that it was the United States that first introduced nuclear weapons into the Korean Peninsula and, by including South Korea and Japan in its strategic nuclear umbrella, has made nuclear weapons an ever-present reality of any foreign policy or national security discussion on North Korea. The decision by the United States in 1957 to abrogate paragraph 13(d) of the Korean armistice agreement prohibiting the introduction of new weapons into the Korean peninsula was seen as an economy of force measure by then-President Eisenhower, who believed that the deployment of nuclear weapons to South Korea would allow the United States to withdraw its large conventional military presence there. For North Korea, it was seen as a direct threat to its existence, given the fact that the American policy at that time was, and continues to be, one that seeks regime change through containment and destabilization.

There is a linkage between arms control and regime change that has existed, and continues to exist, in America’s post-Cold War foreign and national security policy calculations. This linkage is obvious, especially when it comes to nations that have been labeled by Washington as being “rogue” in nature. Iraq stands out in this regard; the effort by UN weapons inspectors to disarm Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were only useful to the United States in so far as it facilitated the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. The attack on Libya followed suit—the United States moved to eliminate Muammar Gaddafi’s chemical and nuclear capabilities prior to overseeing his forceful eviction, and ultimate demise. Until President Trump’s reversed course on American policy vis-à-vis the need for Syrian President Assad to step aside as a precondition for peace in that troubled nation, the efforts to disarm Syria of its chemical arsenal were viewed only in the light of defanging a threat before eliminating it.


Regime change in Pyongyang has always underpinned American policy toward North Korea. North Korea’s considerable conventional military capability, combined with the proximity of China and a history of Chinese military intervention when North Korean sovereignty was violated, has meant that the United States has pursued a non-kinetic solution, focusing on economic containment and diplomatic isolation to compel internal unrest that could lead to the peaceful transition of power within North Korea, and eventually the unification of Korea as a singular political entity governed out of Seoul.

When, in the 1980’s, North Korea undertook to develop an indigenous nuclear capability, the United States treated this initiative as a subset of its larger policy of containment and isolation. America never really negotiated in good faith. North Korea was never given any options other than that which furthered American policy objectives of containment and isolation by denying North Korea the ability to meaningfully integrate with its neighbors and the rest of the world.

This policy of economic and diplomatic isolation of North Korea did produce two dividends to the detriment of American policy—it strengthened the resolve of Pyongyang to build an economy hardened against the pressures of economic sanctions, and it produced a paranoia within the North Korean leadership that turned every military move by the United States in the region into a direct threat to North Korea itself. History has shown us the results: Economic sanctions have proven incapable of compelling change within North Korea, and North Korea has perfected a long-range ballistic missile delivery system and a miniaturized nuclear payload that brings parts of the United States into range.

There are no good options for resolving the unfolding crisis with North Korea. There is no viable military option worthy of the name—the United States simply lacks the concentration of conventional military power in the region to conduct the kind of broad-spectrum, sustained interdiction required for successful preemption of any North Korean attack. Significant North Korean forces, both conventional and strategic, would survive. The devastation of Seoul through conventional artillery fire would all but be assured, along with the real potential of a nuclear missile attack on South Korea, Japan and the territory of the United States. In short, an American preemptive military strike would only accelerate a North Korean nuclear attack.

Total diplomatic capitulation in the face of North Korean intransigence is likewise an unacceptable outcome. It would preserve the North Korean nuclear and strategic missile capability as an unconstrained reality, embolden North Korean action on the Korean peninsula and beyond, while exposing as impotent both America’s conventional and nuclear military deterrence capability. Moreover, both South Korea and Japan would likely embark on building their own independent nuclear deterrence, undermining American and international objectives on nuclear nonproliferation.

Stuck between two unacceptable options, the United States will need to think out of the box in its search for a solution to the North Korean nuclear conundrum. One thing not being considered is the strengthening of economic sanctions targeting either North Korea or those who continue to trade with Pyongyang. Sanctions represent little more than the antithesis of policy, and have played a significant role in boxing the United States in a corner when it comes to resolving the issue of North Korean nuclear capability. Moreover, a policy of seeking to punish China as a means of garnering Chinese support is inherently counterintuitive.

China is the key to any solution. At this juncture, the United States has little choice but to accept the reality of North Korea’s nuclear armament. The problem now becomes how best to contain this reality, and eventually roll it back. One solution would be to turn to the Chinese, and invite them to extend their nuclear umbrella over North Korea, incorporating the North Korean nuclear arsenal into a unified nuclear deterrence capability. China would announce a no first use policy, which would extend to the North Korean nuclear force. Any unilateral violation of this policy by North Korea would result in the Chinese nuclear umbrella being automatically withdrawn. The North Korean strategic nuclear force would be capped at an agreed level, perhaps a regiment-sized force of some dozen missiles.

The United States could then enter into serious arms control discussions with China that included North Korea and Russia (and later India and Pakistan) to scale back the size of their respective nuclear arsenals (understanding that Chinese nuclear disarmament cannot take place in a regional vacuum). One of the key objectives of any such negotiation would be a freeze on the deployment of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems by all parties, and the institution of on-site inspections as a means of verifying compliance; this would get American eyes on the North Korean arsenal, increasing confidence among American politicians that North Korea was not operating in violation of the accord (it would also halt a trillion-dollar nuclear modernization program currently planned for the American nuclear arsenal.)

The nuclear negotiations could go hand in hand with a larger regional conference on stability in the Korean peninsula which would involve the reduction of conventional military forces on both sides of the demilitarized zone, the removal of destabilizing weaponry, such as the American THAAD anti-missile capability and North Korean medium ranged missiles, and the normalization of economic relations between North Korea and its regional neighbors, free of sanctions. The endgame in this dual approach would be to create a situation where North Korea would no longer feel the necessity to possess an independent strategic nuclear capability, and instead be willing to exist under the protection of a Chinese nuclear deterrence force that would, over time, be negotiated down to zero, along with the other nuclear arsenals of the world.

This kind of creative diplomacy has been lacking over the years, mainly due to the arrogance on the part of American diplomats and policy formulators that blinded them to the good of the global collective in the name of sustaining unilateral American nuclear supremacy. The American struggle to maintain its place at the top of the world’s power structure has, at times, taken on machinations that would rival “Game of Thrones” in conspiratorial complexity. “Chaos is a Ladder” may work as a policy thematic in fantasy, but in reality it is a recipe for disaster, as the current American policy failure with North Korea underscores. It is high time Washington divorces itself from decades of failed policy formulation and instead embark on a new path that leads to a resolution that offers something other than American supremacy at the cost of regional and global instability.

Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD.  He is the author of  Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War (Clarity Press, 2017).

31 Comments (Open | Close)

31 Comments To "Resolving North Korea Without “Fire and Fury”"

#1 Comment By Cornel Lencar On August 10, 2017 @ 1:17 am

A too sensible proposal. Not likely to happen.

#2 Comment By polistra On August 10, 2017 @ 7:23 am

SoKo, which clearly has the most to lose, strongly favors a non-military response. It’s safe to assume that they understand NoKo infinitely better than we do, because of genes and experience.

I’m genuinely puzzled by Kim’s PRECISE specification of the route and speed of his Guam strike. This is the type of info that spies would normally kill to acquire. Why provide it in advance? Is the Guam strike a misdirection?

#3 Comment By Chris Chuba On August 10, 2017 @ 8:26 am

Or …
Reunification coupled with the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Or …
nuclear disarmament and limitations on their ballistic missiles with the withdrawal of U.S. forces with the terms being enforced by China.

Kim doesn’t want to be the next Gaddafi, we don’t tolerate the U.S. being in range of his nuclear missiles.

#4 Comment By Carl On August 10, 2017 @ 8:38 am

My thought on NK for a while has been that everyone has been happier with the status quo than change:

– NK regime wants to survive
– China does not want a US ally on its border
– SK does not want to pay for the north
– US does not want to fight a war

The only way that I can see to replace the status quo with something each party could accept is to make NK a Chinese puppet or autonomous region.

– NK regime would lose its head but lower elites could become wealthy like the Chinese elites
– China would have a buffer state
– SK would not have to pay for NK but could resume regular relations
– US would not have to fight a war

So, how do we make that happen without starting a massive war?

#5 Comment By Steve Hayes On August 10, 2017 @ 9:55 am

Whilst the strategy is sane and sensible and might be achievable, the notion that the US would pursue it deifies credibility. The whole history of the US makes it fanciful.

#6 Comment By Dan Green On August 10, 2017 @ 10:33 am

Post WW 2 NK is another example of all the wars we got into and never win , as we usually tire of the conflict pack up and leave some American troops behind. The Korean War, Vietnam, and of recent Iraq, while Yemen and Syria destroy themselves.

#7 Comment By sid_finster On August 10, 2017 @ 10:59 am

Kim has learned well the lessons of Iraq and Libya.

Saddam and Ghadaffi gave up their weapons and were relatively cooperative and non-confrontational.

In response, the United States attacked them without provocation, murdered them, and gleefully turned what were once semi-functioning countries into failed states.

#8 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 10, 2017 @ 11:44 am

Tell me again why we’re risking nuclear holocaust by interfering on the other side of the world. The endgame was always going to be that making faraway wars on peoples considered inferior was going to mean that one day there would be blowback here, as that racist myth was dissolved by realities.

#9 Comment By Michael Kenny On August 10, 2017 @ 12:16 pm

It’s fairly clear that the US is going to have to back down in regard to NK. Whether the consequent damage to US prestige can be repaired at all is open to doubt. However, Trump is going to have to try and there’s only one war that’s worth winning from Trump’s point of view: a war on Putin, getting him out of Ukraine. The thought crossed my mind that all this fire and brimstone may have in fact been addressed to Putin.

#10 Comment By Garry Kelly On August 10, 2017 @ 12:21 pm

Kim may be crazy BUT he is not stupid.

#11 Comment By Steve Waclo On August 10, 2017 @ 1:49 pm

Scott, your enlightened proposals are welcome, but as long as regime change in the US of A is off the table, I despair chest thumping and saber rattling by our current administration will only serve to move the situation towards an increasing dangerous outcome.

Gotta go. My backyard bomb shelter project continues apace…

#12 Comment By J Kietler On August 10, 2017 @ 2:26 pm

These creative ideas are all non-starters that would be flatly rejected by North Korea, China and other countries listed in this essay – with no opening left for further discussion. Is there a plan B?

#13 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On August 10, 2017 @ 2:38 pm

I’m not qualified to comment on the substance of “fire and fury”–I gladly defer to Scott Ritter–but something deserves to be said about the historical resonance of Trump’s rhetoric–not policy, but words.

The phrase “fire and fury” is already more rhetorically Lincolnesque than anything Obama said in eight years. Think about it. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth” has seven “r” rounds, six of them at the end of the word–just like “fire and fury.”

Trump’s sentence includes “world” and concludes with the word “before,” pronounced very emphatically by the president. This is unmistakably reminiscent of the Gettysburg Address in its repeated letter sounds (“reminiscent of” doesn’t mean “equal to”). “… on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men” repeats still another letter sound.

Even nowadays liberals like Garry Wills miss Lincoln’s mundane (letter-sound) euphony entirely. As if “proposition”–as in **proposition nation**–has any philosophical weight apart from the hypnotic effect produced by the repetition of twelve “n” sounds and eleven “r” sounds in the sentence. (In that order–first the “r” sounds and then the “n” sounds, mirroring the same order they appear in “proposition.”)

Don’t sell Trump short. Obviously he’s not Lincoln! But no one is Lincoln, least of all Lincoln’s overrated fellow Illinoisan Barack Obama.

#14 Comment By c matt On August 10, 2017 @ 2:48 pm

while Yemen and Syria destroy themselves

Correction, while the US destroys Yemen and Syria through its proxies.

Why on earth would anyone trust the US? Its own citizens don’t trust it. It demonstrates time and again that it cannot be trusted. The only reason a sane person would even pretend to negotiate with the US is to buy time to develop deterrent capabilities, and who could blame them?

#15 Comment By Sean On August 10, 2017 @ 4:44 pm

America killed three million Koreans. Nine of ten were civilian. Their crime? Trying to undo the gutting of their country into two, performed by America for base greed.

Reliable estimates of North Korea’s total reserves of precious metals hover around the trillion dollar mark.

#16 Comment By David Skerry On August 10, 2017 @ 5:06 pm

How did Scot do in disarming Israel? Not too well I believe.The. Biggest threat to world peace is Israel,not N.Korea. Get real,N.Korea threatens no one which doesn’t threaten it.Not so with our “master ally.”

#17 Comment By EarlyBird On August 10, 2017 @ 6:35 pm

Correction, while the US destroys Yemen and Syria through its proxies.

Oh come on now, c matt. The US didn’t push Syria into a civil war, or press the Houthis to revolt in Yemen. Yes, we have certainly fed the first, particularly in Yemen, but let’s not strip these actors of any kind of agency of their own. History happened long before the US ever came to be.

#18 Comment By Clifford Story On August 10, 2017 @ 7:11 pm

My proposal is that China should simply give North Korea six or eight solid-fuel ICBMs, unarmed of course, on condition that the missile tests stop. That might ease Donnie’s fevered mind, the locus of the “crisis”.

#19 Comment By Howard On August 10, 2017 @ 8:08 pm

Somebody just needs to buy Kim Jong-un a Coca-cola. Hey, it worked with Mean Joe Green.

#20 Comment By Howard On August 10, 2017 @ 8:39 pm

@Ken Zaretzke — Maybe Trump could make sure the next 50,000 words of his tweets do not contain the letter “e”. That would make about as much sense as counting how many “r” sounds he has in a sentence.

#21 Comment By Rossbach On August 10, 2017 @ 10:04 pm

We don’t need Fire & Fury, sanctions, or even diplomacy. The cheapest, easiest, and most effective solution is to withdraw US military forces from the Far East (where they serve no defensive purpose for the US) and let China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia deal with this problem. The Korean War ended in 1953. Time to bring the troops home.

#22 Comment By bullet force On August 10, 2017 @ 11:50 pm

sow the wind, shall reap the Whirlwind

#23 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 11, 2017 @ 3:32 am

Well Marine,

you’ve done it again.

My only wince is to the actual influence China has over North Korea. In other words, I am unconvinced that a Chinese umbrella would be sufficient for the North Koreans. if I were a North Korean, I might respond with all due respect,

We take your current umbrella for granted unless we misunderstand our relationship. but the suggestion is key indicator why we need our own.

#24 Comment By EndOfPatience On August 11, 2017 @ 8:23 am

I’d appreciate the author pointing out precisely what he thinks he’s presented that is in any way, shape, form or manner new? Because all I see is suggestion that we continue trying the same failed approaches that got us here.

But he’s pretty much demonstrated he can’t. “The United States could then enter into serious arms control discussions with China that included North Korea and Russia …”? “The nuclear negotiations could go hand in hand with a larger regional conference on stability in the Korean peninsula …”? Gosh, Scott, you’re a genius! Why didn’t anyone else think of negotiations at any time in the past 60 years?

Oh, wait …

You people are so consumed by Trump hatred you’ve lost touch with reality.

#25 Comment By Procopius On August 11, 2017 @ 8:41 am

We’re stuck. The only possible solutions would require two things: the U.S. would have to accept the existence of North Korea under the current regime, and would have to bargain in good faith. Neither of these is acceptable to the neoconservatives who have a stranglehold on the foreign policy machinery.

#26 Comment By Steve Rafalsky On August 11, 2017 @ 9:55 am

If some thoughts from a Christian versed in amil eschatology may be entered: I do see we are not assuming reason or even a modicum of statesmanship in either of the leaders of the saber-rattling nations, yet nonetheless do not factor in actual demonic urges moving these two men (and other leaders), which sort of dark-reason passions will be a mark in the days bringing us near to the larger destruction of the entity named “Babylon” (Revelation 18), and from there to the global Armageddon.

These are no longer “normal” days such as we have become sort of used to, but supernatural elements will become more and more evident. Lest I be thought a bit unhinged myself, I refer to the saying of Ferlinghetti,

“If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding apocalyptic.” –*Poetry as Insurgent Art*, Lawrence Ferlinghetti

#27 Comment By mauisurfer On August 12, 2017 @ 5:24 pm

with the greatest genuine respect for Scott Ritter,
1. DPRK is NOT going to give up it nuclear weapons to China or any Chinese control. DPRK is sovereign nation and proud of its independence.
2. You mention India and Pakistan, but nowhere do you even acknowledge Israel’s nuclear weapons, “locked and loaded” on rockets even including MIRV technology shared by USA.
So how is it you are NOT proposing that Israel give up its nuclear weapons under protection of USA? (as you say DPRK should give up to China)
And how is it that USA refuses to adopt “no first strike” pledge?

#28 Comment By Glaivester On August 13, 2017 @ 10:00 am

Or …
Reunification coupled with the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

I never understood this idea that the solution is “reunification.” Of course everyone wants reunification, the question is under what terms? I am not certain that NoKo would accept reunification under any terms that did not involve Kim becoming dictator over SoKo as well.

#29 Comment By JJ On August 14, 2017 @ 1:57 pm

“Tell me again why we’re risking nuclear holocaust by interfering on the other side of the world. The endgame was always going to be that making faraway wars on peoples considered inferior was going to mean that one day there would be blowback here, as that racist myth was dissolved by realities.”

Tell me again why the esteemed readers of American Conservative peddle such noxious leftist myths in the comments section? There is so much to criticize about US foreign policy in the Cold War, but the idea that it was motivated primarily by racism and not a genuine fear of an expansionist USSR is asinine.

#30 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 16, 2017 @ 1:17 am

“And how is it that USA refuses to adopt “no first strike” pledge?”

because no nation that I know with nuclear capability renounces such a policy. if self defense is your primary position then, survival may warrant such a strike.

Suppose you are losing a fist fight and that loss may be the loss of your life, survival may compel the use of something more lethal than your fist.

The Chinese umbrella makes sense, but what whether it would it make sense to an independent state such as North Korea. In my view it’s hard sell. But not as hard as asking a nation to forgo it’s self defense in the name of some noble “embrace of no first strike.”

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