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The Mindless Hawkish Response to North Korea’s Missile Test

Threatening North Korea with regime change would confirm the regime's leadership in its conviction that it needs its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

The Wall Street Journal responds to reports of a successful ICBM test by North Korea with predictable calls for regime change:

The best option is a comprehensive strategy to change the Kim regime, as former Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph has argued. Washington must strengthen deterrence and build out missile defenses, revive the Bush Administration’s antiproliferation dragnet, convince countries in the region to cut their ties with North Korea, consider shooting down future Korean test missiles, and spread news about the regime’s crimes to people in the North.

Threatening North Korea with regime change would do nothing to reduce or eliminate threats from North Korea, but it would confirm the regime’s leadership in its conviction that it needs its nuclear weapons and missile programs to fend off an attack. Nothing makes a regime obsessed with its own survival less likely to compromise or negotiate than vowing to overthrow it, and besides attacking North Korea there is nothing that makes a North Korean attack more likely than making their government believe they have nothing left to lose. The less secure the regime feels, the less likely it is to be deterred, so making a concerted effort to undermine them is one of the stupidest things the U.S. could do. If their government didn’t think that the U.S. and its allies were determined to get rid of them, they might be willing to make some concessions, but to reach that point the U.S. would at a minimum have to eschew all talk of regime change and reject the possibility of waging preventive war on the DPRK.

Seeking regime change in North Korea would be extremely dangerous and foolish. It would put millions of lives in jeopardy by risking war with the current regime. In the very unlikely event that this policy somehow “worked” as intended, it would still create massive upheaval that would swamp South Korea with an unmanageable refugee crisis. The preparations that would need to be made to cope with the fall of North Korea’s regime are frankly beyond the competence of the current administration, and might well be beyond the competence of any government, and we already know that the U.S. is remarkably bad at preparing for what follows regime change. We should assume that China would be strongly opposed to a U.S. push for regime change on their doorstep, and by pushing for regime change the U.S. would risk sparking a war with a nuclear-armed major power. In the worst-case scenario, the North Korean leadership might also choose to use their nuclear weapons once they conclude that they aren’t going to survive anyway.

The WSJ editors assert that “three U.S. administrations have tried diplomacy and failed,” but that misrepresents the consistency of the U.S. effort and it misleads their audience about how things have turned out this way. Diplomacy with North Korea did have some success in limiting their nuclear program over twenty years ago, but the Bush administration’s attempt to force even bigger concessions through increased pressure backfired spectacularly and led to North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT and their first nuclear weapons test. Since then, the U.S. has been trying to contain the fallout from that bit of short-sighted hard-line posturing. Pursuing an even more aggressive policy now isn’t going to succeed, and it might very well plunge the Koreas and the U.S. into a major war that would be a disaster for all involved.



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