Just like a doctor needs to find the real root cause of an illness to fix their patients, we need to identify the real root cause of an international conflict if we want to find a solution. The root cause of the North Korean trouble is not its nuclear program, not China’s policy, nor U.S. responses and choices, but rather the Kim family. The failure of all of past efforts is basically because these efforts have not focused on the root cause of the problem.
As a nation, North Korea doesn’t need nuclear weapons to protect its security, but the Kim family needs nuclear weapons for their own safety. Not having weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear and chemical weapons, the Kim family fears they will suffer the same fate as Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. In fact, in one of his last public talks, Gaddafi actually said that Kim Jong-il would laugh at his current situation because he gave up his nuclear weapons program. The three generations of the Kim family that have developed the nuclear weapons program have done so only for the safety of their family. With nuclear weapons, they can hold hostage the North Korean people, the people of South Korea, Japan and now the United States, as any usage or misusage of a nuclear weapon could create an unthinkable humanitarian crisis.
U.S. President Donald Trump once called Kim Jong-un a “smart cookie.” Yes, in fact the Kim family has been smart in dealing with the major powers in the past one or two decades. There are two basic judgments that compel the Kim family to pursue nuclear weapons without worrying much about a possible military attack on North Korea. The first judgment is that China will never abandon North Korea. The second is that the United States will never launch a comprehensive military attack on North Korea.
Until today, we have to say these two judgments are still valid, and will not be easy to change. During the summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Trump at Mar-a-Lago in April, Xi spent ten minutes giving Trump a mini-lecture on the history of the Chinese-Korean relationship. Xi must have told Trump the importance of North Korea to China — strategically, geographically, and geopolitically, and also about the huge investment, both material and emotional, China has put into North Korea since the Korean War. It would be very difficult for China to abandon North Korea.
Even though Trump has made it clear the military option is on the table, for any leader, launching a comprehensive military attack on North Korea is an extremely difficult decision to make because the consequences are so difficult to control. Seoul, one of the most prosperous and populated major cities in the world is only 35 miles from the border of North Korea, and within the range of conventional weapons, such as artillery. North Korea’s missile technology is not top-of-the-line, but it already poses a credible threat to South Korea, and Japan, and is working on the capability of delivering missiles to the U.S. mainland with recent developments.
The North Korean nuclear issue is no doubt a major threat to the peace and security of the world. Any accident could cause unimaginable casualties and damage. International society has to pay greater attention to trying to find a solution, as the past approach in using sanctions — by treating the Kim family and North Korean people as the same entity — has very clearly failed. Future efforts must focus on the root cause of all these problems — Kim Jong-un and his family.
International society, including both the United States and China, should send a clear message that Kim Jong-un and the Kim family, not the people of North Korea, are the source of the problem. They should send an ultimatum to Kim, and tell him to give up his nuclear weapons and missile programs. Only by sending such an ultimatum to Kim will he and his family feel real pressure, and he can no longer hide himself from the nuclear program, or use the technical issues of nuclear programs, the sanctions, and other issues to delay and play games with other countries.
Only by sending such a clear message to the people of North Korea, including military personnel, will they understand they are not being targeted for any punishment. Instead, there will be more and more people that will defect from the regime. Also, in the event there is any action taken to remove the Kim family from power, there will be fewer people who will be willing to sacrifice their lives to protect their dictators.
The ultimatum to Kim Jong-un should include those messages — if he cooperates and gives up the nuclear program, this ultimatum could give Kim and his family a safe exit. From the perspective of Kim Jong-un, the purpose of the nuclear and missile programs is for the safety of himself and his family, so if he can acquire this type of safety assurance, abandoning nuclear weapons should not be an unimaginable option. Because of the lack of trust between the United States and the North Korean regime, however, Kim cannot be sure that even if he does give up his nuclear program, he will receive this type of security. But it is still possible to assure the Kim family through a multilateral agreement with participation from China, Russia, and even the United Nations. And the ultimatum should make it clear that only if he cooperates in abandoning the nuclear program will Kim and his family receive safety, and if he does not cooperate, he will be eliminated for sure. There are many options for removing a single dictator, rather than toppling an entire regime.
By focusing on the Kim family, the two deadlocks of North Korean issue may have an opportunity to be solved. First, China will never abandon North Korea, but Beijing has no problem abandoning the Kim family. Second, comprehensive military actions are very risky, and can cause a major humanitarian crisis. But actions targeted only on Kim Jong-un as one person will be different, and much easier than military actions aimed at regime change and targeting North Korea’s one million troops and state organs.
Only by focusing on the real root cause of the problem we can find a solution without paying a great price.
Zheng Wang is the Director and Professor of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He is also a Carnegie Fellow at New America and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.