So far, so good on America’s renewed engagement with the world. Faced with a bad-tempered environment, both at home and overseas, the Biden administration’s early moves are restoring optimism. We see the emergence, or reemergence, of broad, powerful organizing principles shaping our policies.
First previewed by the Biden campaign, then in January’s inaugural address, and now with the publication of an Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, the emphasis is on responding to today’s global challenges, upholding our universal values, making common cause with our closest allies and partners, and renewing our own enduring sources of national strength. Enhancing the strength of our democracy is cited as our most fundamental challenge. “We must now demonstrate – with a clarity that dispels any doubt – that democracy can still deliver for our people” and that it is not a relic of history. Lest there be any doubt, Freedom House’s latest annual survey reports that 73 nations, representing three-quarters of the global population, became less free.
President Biden knows well the efforts of past presidents in other trying times. He understands President Roosevelt’s role in what became known as the “Bretton Woods System” that initiated the creation of the post-war liberal world order. That system may well have been the reason we did not have World War III in the last century. It involved substantial foreign aid on our part, but this was not an act of charity. We enhanced our power and influence by helping our allies and friends remain free and become successful. We valued our allies and friends, not because we never disagreed, but because we remembered the damage wrought by isolation, imperialism, colonialism, preferential trading blocks, and autocracy.
North Korea will test us. Internal North Korean issues, Kim’s need to burnish his image (dictators never feel totally secure or satisfied), and a need for help create a predicate for action to force negotiations. These always pose a danger to our allies and our policies, regionally and globally.
Following our revealed, and renewed principles, our first task in dealing with North Korea should be to make that quite secondary or tertiary to rebuilding trust with our allies and enhancing conventional deterrence. North Korea has been called a member of the “axis of lesser evils”; an apt description given our proper focus on comprehensive great power competition. Our goal is the security of our allies and friends, and the protection of their vital interests and the lives of their citizens, not relations with a rogue regime, much less its leader. Rebuild alliance foundations, then deal with North Korea where possible in solid cooperation with our allies.
The pursuit of denuclearization sets us up for failure. Without his nuclear capability, Kim has nothing. Our past pursuit of complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization brings attention to North Korea that would be better placed elsewhere. Kim is unlikely to believe anything we promise in return for denuclearization. He was in school in Europe when Muammar Ghaddafi was killed in Libya, an example of the hazard of giving up nuclear weapons. He is aware of our value system and the existence of the international criminal court. He also knows that one administration’s promise may not extend to another administration.
North Korea would benefit if we allowed a new provocation to produce the old cycle. Step one is a North Korean outrage. Step two is our consideration of military action. Step three is the deferral of military action in favor of negotiations. Step four is agreement on something, step five is violations of that agreement. Step six is the imposition of sanctions with promises of effectiveness “this time” because our “new and improved” sanctions are so much better than earlier sanctions.
The late George Schultz deemed sanctions as a “wasting asset”, and so they are. North Korea has few of the attributes, strengths, and weaknesses that are normally seen in a nation-state. It bears a resemblance to a barricaded hostage holder credibly threatening to bring the regional house down. It has little to offer in trade other than what nuclear and missile material and other mass-destruction weapons expertise can fetch in the black market. The assassination of Kim Jong-Nam in February 2017 in Malaysia demonstrated North Korea’s possession of VX nerve gas and their ability to deploy and employ that lethal gas in a sophisticated attack. It also served notice to other nations of North Korea’s ability to inflict damage beyond its immediate neighborhood. Sanctions that called on nations to repatriate their North Korean laborers are not likely to be obeyed for fear of another attack.
Such wealth as there is in North Korea is less a product of a functioning economy than it is ill-gotten gains. The regime and its core supporters, very roughly estimated at one million, are supported by a global diaspora that is compelled to send remittances home, not to family but to those in power. It is tough to sanction actions that are already illegal.
North Korea is adept at playing the interests of its regional neighbors against each other. China and Russia enjoy the status quo. South Korea’s interests vary with national politics, but with one of the world’s largest metropolitan populations in Seoul within artillery range of the North Korean arsenal in the Kaesong Heights, caution is a logical reaction. Japan is inside North Korea’s weapons engagement zone, a fact repeatedly demonstrated inAugust 1998. None wants to hazard a collapse due to a high collateral damage potential.
We must use the next provocation to our best advantage. Be guided by our values and principles. We should be able to move quickly to take advantage of threats that capture public attention and concern. Yes, talk to North Korea, but only after consultations with allies and others – China, Russia – involved. Use the provocation to help our allies to build consensus for enhancing our combined regional deterrence. If the provocation involves anything that flies, we should move quickly to enhance our integrated air and missile defense across our alliances. If it involves submarines or sea mines, other appropriate actions can add to our collective deterrent strength. Increasing our deterrence by denial, vastly decreasing North Korea’s chance of getting a weapon through our defenses, would build confidence among our allies and friends, and strengthen deterrence overall. North Korea is not the focus, the great power competition is.
Lieutenant General Wallace C. Gregson, Jr., is Senior Director, China, and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest. He retired from the Marine Corps in 2005 with the rank of Lieutenant-General. He last served as the Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific; Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific; and Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Bases, Pacific, headquartered at Camp H. M. Smith, Hawaii.