The North Korea Regime Change Debate
Image Credit: REUTERS/Jason LeeSYSTEM

The North Korea Regime Change Debate

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Richard Haass, the respected president of the Council on Foreign Relations, raised eyebrows among foreign policy elites recently when he proposed that regime change in North Korea should be the explicit aim of American foreign policy. The notion also stirred much-needed debate on broader national security considerations.

Haass’s Wall Street Journal article cogently made the strategic and humanitarian case for a collaborative campaign by Washington, Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo to arrange the end of the Kim Jong-un regime and bring peaceful unification to the Korean Peninsula.

Pyongyang’s infamous cyber aggression against Sony is only the latest straw. Its hard military power, both nuclear and conventional – coupled with its reckless rhetoric and behavior – directly threaten South Korea, Japan, and the United States. The regime’s massive human rights violations constitute a litany of crimes against humanity, causing the Security Council to deem North Korea’s oppression of its own population a threat to international peace and security.

Nothing less than regime change, Haass argues, will suffice to remove those internal outrages and external dangers. But his call for what he acknowledges is an ambitious and risky undertaking, coming as it does from an eminent leader in the foreign policy establishment, has stoked alarm among fellow scholars. One set of objections relates to the practical modalities of the Haass proposal: It offers no post-reunification plan going forward, and it potentially accords China an inappropriate role in U.S.-South Korea military cooperation.

Kori Schake of the Hoover Institute takes on the Haass concept more frontally in a Foreign Policy blog, calling it “unusually reckless” and seemingly oblivious to the probability of “catastrophic responses or the collapse of North Korea burgeoning into chaos.” Schake says the Haass argument “is premised on confidence that he understands both Chinese and Korean choices – that if only we provided the right incentives, China would flip from bolstering Pyongyang,” an approach American policymakers have tried in vain for more than a decade. She dismisses Beijing’s assertion (as I have) that it supports Pyongyang to ensure stability on the Peninsula, instead perpetuating a regime that is a major source of regional instability.

Schake astutely observes: “It is similarly plausible that China still sees a scary North Korea as useful in tying down Washington’s attention.” (I have argued that this good cop/bad cop routine enables China to be seen in Western eyes as a comparative good-faith negotiating partner and “responsible stakeholder.” The twenty-year charade is win-win for the Communist allies: China gets its international status; North Korea gets its nukes.)

Schake finds other “problems” and “major flaws” in the Haass proposal “surprising from someone who wrote so ardently about the mistakes of such wars of choice,” e.g., Iraq. Yet, the North Korea dilemma invites some rethinking of both that war and the entire body of conventional wisdom regarding intervention, regime change, and the post-World War II approach to “limited war.” In hindsight (and validation for some), Iraq II would not have been necessary in 2002 if Iraq I had achieved the needed regime change in 1990 when it could have been done more efficiently and humanely. (Yes, there would have been problems in getting full international support to extend the mission beyond reversing Saddam Hussein’s aggression in Kuwait, but that was never tried.

Similarly, the Korean people and the world would have been spared six decades of the Kim family-inflicted nightmare had the U.S.-led United Nations force made regime change the goal of that 1950s war. Nor would there likely have been a Kosovo onslaught and war in 1998 had Slobodan Milosevic and his murderous gang been dispatched during the (tragically belated) Bosnia intervention earlier in that decade. More recently, Washington’s inattention and vacillation robbed the Libyan people of the benefits Gaddafi’s overthrow could have provided them. Failure of U.S. leadership in the Syria situation again precluded timely regime change and produced the present strategic and humanitarian horrors there.

It is too easy to dismiss arguments for intervention and regime change in extreme cases of aggression and/or humanitarian outrages as mere war-mongering and reversion to Cold War thinking. Yet, it was precisely the U.S.-Soviet confrontation and the danger of nuclear war that led to the erosion of the pre-Cold War principles of total victory, unconditional surrender, and elimination of outlaw regimes. The end of America’s nuclear monopoly made those World War II strategies for Germany, Japan, and Italy implausible in direct Cold War conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia or China.

But the understanding that neither major power would really go to the mat and risk mutual annihilation made the world safe for an increasing frequency of “limited wars” between their proxies, surrogates or allies. The carnage and suffering was anything but limited, of course, for the direct combatants’ populations in Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo and Syria. As long as the West keeps regime change off the table, the offending regime sees itself as having little to lose in its particular situation, in effect playing with the house’s money.

As to the “war-mongering” charge against regime change advocates, everyone is presumably against war in the abstract. All things being equal (rarely true), peace is better than war – but not if it indulges genocide, crimes against humanity, or threats of nuclear aggression (all of which are blatant violations of the U.N. Charter).

Moreover, the history of the last hundred years has taught that peace cheaply bought can lead to war dearly waged. Time and again, appeasement and looking the other way have proved counter-productive as well as morally wrong. Tolerating the violation of indispensable international principles has often only deferred war and made it bigger and costlier than it would have been.

In any event, war is not the only means to bring about decent governance and there are positive examples of successful peaceful change. Regimes can find enlightenment and reform themselves, as happened in South Korea, Taiwan and South Africa. U.S. President Barack Obama is hoping for a variation of that scenario in Cuba. Or, a combination of internal and external pressures can bring about largely peaceful regime collapse, as in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and more recently, Ukraine.

Despite Schake’s concerns, Haass is not abandoning a prudent approach to regime change in North Korea. He is well aware that Western actions can have unintended consequences – but so can inaction. That is effectively what we have had for six decades during which containing rather than changing the regime has been the declared objective of U.S. policy.

But Schake is right that Haass overestimates China’s willingness to abandon its longstanding ally. That is why Western pressure needs to be applied to Beijing as well as Pyongyang. Indeed, it may well be true that regime change in North Korea will not happen until there is regime change in China, which itself is an outlier on international norms. U.S. policymakers need to devise specific non-kinetic policies, overt and covert, to encourage that result in both problematic systems.

Joseph A. Bosco is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served as China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of Defense from 2005-2006.

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