An opportunity for peace on the Korean PeninsulaNow that North Korea has successfully launched a long-range rocket, the world is both stunned and fearful that the same rocket technology will be repurposed for offensive missile technology. There is little doubt that North Korea will quickly change the nature of its newly-tested technology as Kim Jong-un sees it as critical to the survival of his regime. Upon completion of this work, the national security of the United States will be put at the mercy of the Kim regime. How should the U.S. respond to the growing threat from North Korea?
If the U.S. believes in power politics, it could launch a full-scale military response before Kim Jong-un makes nuclear-armed, long-range ballistic missiles operable. The military option would, if successful, permit the U.S. to preserve its territorial integrity, while throwing the Korean Peninsula and East Asian region into chaos. If this military approach is chosen, it has to be implemented as soon as possible. The more the U.S. waits, the higher the costs. Surgical airstrikes are another military option; however, there is no guarantee it will completely cripple the military ambition of North Korea. Instead, it may give Kim Jong-un and his generals a pretext to engage in total war.
Is Barack Obama likely to consider these military options as feasible? No. The American dangers of a military invasion of North Korea include the country’s existing nuclear arsenal in addition to sacrificing normalized rations with China. Obama may instead contemplate harsher economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. However, it is doubtful that the U.S. can stop North Korean military aggression with heightened economic coercion, as existing sanctions have had little, if any, impact on North Korea’s military advancement. One outcome of intensifying sanctions may be the collapse of the Kim regime as a result of economic hardship.
However, previous sanctions have yet to counter the military challenge posed by the Kim family. How could the U.S. think that sanctions will work this time? Even if sanctions work, the demise of the Kim regime may still result in the establishment of another nuclear-hungry North. Diplomatic pressure has its own limits, as cooperation from China and Russia is doubtful. These two North Korean allies have a little to no incentives to punish North Korea as future North Korean long-range missiles are unlikely to be aimed towards either Beijing or Moscow.
If all of these options are impractical, how then should the U.S. deal with North Korea? The U.S. should try to liberalize North Korea’s domestic markets. Many scholars and policy makers have learned that economic ties help reconcile political differences and lead to peaceful coexistence. A good example is the improved relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam through trade and capital flows.
Of course, the approach of economic liberalization should be based on the U.S. realization that, with this latest successful rocket launch, North Korea has already been transformed into a quasi-global power, capable of inflicting devastation on U.S. territory, and that this power should not be counter-balanced by U.S. politico-military actions. In fact, given its increasing nuclear capabilities, it may be time for the U.S. to embrace North Korea as a political partner and to find a way to turn the county into a U.S. ally.
All things considered, the U.S. has bigger fish to fry in East Asia, in the form of China, the real threat to future U.S. hegemony. Opening and deepening economic relations between the U.S. and North Korea is the only way to obtain a peaceful resolution to current tensions and mistrust.
All in all, North Korea’s successful rocket launch provides the U.S. with an opportunity to rethink its foreign policy towards the Kim regime. Rather than hastily flex her military muscle, the U.S. should give the recent launch a positive spin by adopting a new economic approach. If this happens, the Korean Peninsula could become a more peaceful and stable place while at the same time innocent American lives and interests in the Western hemisphere could be protected.
* Associate professor of political science at University of Illinois in Chicago
By Choi Seung-whan, Ph.D.