The Debate

Know Thy North Korean Enemy

America can’t wait for China on the Korean Peninsula.

By Rachel Wagley for
Know Thy North Korean Enemy
Credit: Pyongyang via Attila JANDI /

“Who are you?” General Matthew Ridgway asked my grandmother in 1951 on the tarmac of a U.S. base in Korea. Ridgway had just replaced General Douglas MacArthur and was making the rounds – even introducing himself to the young woman in charge of two U.S. service clubs. Who are you? It is a question that a good commander asks of his subordinates to understand, value, and evaluate the people serving behind him.

It is also a question a good commander asks of his enemies. It is impossible to beat a formidable opponent – for Ridgway, North Korea – without knowing its calculations and motivations, and understanding how far it will go.

Sixty-five years after Ridgeway’s tenure in Korea, the United States is still facing down the same enemy. The protracted stalemate suggests that the United States has yet to fully learn how North Korea thinks and how far it will go. Since 2006, North Korea has tested four nuclear devices without fear of repercussion.

The latest test on January 6, 2016 kicked off the new year with a stark reminder that without a more studied U.S. policy, North Korea will continue its nuclear provocation and development. In his State of the Union address on January 12, U.S. President Barack Obama downplayed the threat of rogue regimes across the world, arguing that international dynamics are static, that regimes like North Korea aren’t growing stronger. But North Korea’s advancing nuclear capability renders the president’s claim demonstrably false.

Years of failing to know thine enemy have led to a bigger, badder enemy.

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American policy should recognize the assets and strengths of rogue regimes, not disregard them. A more effective U.S. policy would center on how North Korea acts, not on how America wishes the country would act. It would focus on altering the regime’s nuclear calculus by cutting off opportunities for procurement and revenue generation, leveraging piercing sanctions on foreign companies supporting the regime, and convincing Beijing that North Korean nukes are leading to the deployment of weapons systems in Northeast Asia against its national interests.

But over the past several years, U.S. policy has been to do very little in response to nuclear tests – a policy that has earned support in some quarters. Walter Russell Mead argues that while the U.S. must “make clear that North Korea gains nothing from this kind of behavior and reassure jumpy allies without escalating the crisis…there isn’t much else to do.” I am loathe to rebut the truly brilliant Mr. Mead, but the U.S. has quite a bit more room to act in order to prevent an impoverished country half the size of Minnesota from provoking the civilized world and slapping a nuclear warhead on a missile.

American’s do-nothing strategy is based in part on the flawed argument that there is little else the U.S. can do without Chinese cooperation. This is a cop-out that has disproportionately inflated China’s clout. China persuaded South Korea to weather the North’s first three nuclear tests without meaningful retaliation, warning that retaliation would provoke escalation. South Korea bowed to Chinese pressure, but to no avail. China’s efforts to prevent escalation may indeed have created escalation by emboldening the North. North Korea got off scot-free for its belligerent tests, argues Dr. John Park in Strategic Asia: Asia in the Second Nuclear Age, and the credibility of South Korea’s deterrence in the North’s eyes has been severely eroded.

This time, South Korea seems to be fed up with China’s advice. After the January test, South Korea pointedly argued that China’s financial support of North Korea is antithetical to its support for a denuclearized Korean peninsula and that China should back new UN sanctions. In a groundbreaking move, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said she will consider U.S. deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) on South Korean soil, despite previous ambivalence in the face of strong Chinese opposition. Deployment of THAAD would send a clear message that a China that supports a nuclear North Korea is not a China to heed on matters of national defense.

The international community should of course court China’s support for tighter UN sanctions and trade controls on weapons procurement, but it should not depend or wait on a Chinese about-face on the Korea issue. China keeps North Korea financially afloat because it fears instability on its borders and relishes the buffer North Korea provides between China and its democratic neighbors. China’s dalliance demonstrates the power North Korea is capable of projecting over its populous neighbor. While more is required from China than mere support for UN sanctions, the U.S. and South Korea cannot wait for China to overcome its paranoia.

I recently traveled to Seoul as part of a delegation hosted by the Korea Foundation and Korea Economic Institute, which arranged an intensive series of meetings with Korean officials and thought leaders. The South Korean government, particularly the Ministry of Reunification, yearns for a unified Korea. The ministry’s latest slogan proclaims that a unified Korea would be an economic “bonanza.” Maybe so, but the U.S. and its allies can work toward this goal only insofar as they can act on reality. And the reality is that a unified Korea is premised on the deconstruction and disenfranchisement of the North Korean political-security apparatus. Waiting for the North Korean regime to suddenly combust or the Chinese to stop sending in money, a Korean expert relayed, is a wish upon a star and not a policy goal.

Hours before the State of the Union address on January 12, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 418-2 in favor of better targeted North Korean sanctions, and the Senate is expected to follow. The Obama administration too has indicated it may support a stronger response to the latest test, especially if China fails to act. This is a step in the right direction, and the resulting sanctions should target North Korea’s political elites, human rights abusers, and hacker network, but also foreign banks and companies harboring North Korean cash or doing illicit business with the regime. Only through financial strangulation will North Korea consent to reenter the six-party denuclearization talks.

The United States should also push the UN Security Council to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court, a threat that helped spark reform in Burma. The United States should redesignate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and increase broadcasts and radio programming into North Korea. In short, America should hold North Korea’s feet to the fire while asking, What is North Korea? To those who listen to the war cries, it appears to be a regime intent on developing the capacity to threaten not only South Korea but also the United States with a nuclear weapon. And a United States more intent on waiting on and blaming China than taking action presents a perilous reality for the Asia-Pacific – and the U.S. homeland.

Rachel Wagley is Director of Government Relations and External Affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research.