There’s a Perfectly Good Alternative to War with North Korea

By: Evan Cooper, Columnist

Photo Credit: Voice of America News

With North Korea armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can strike major US cities, concern of nuclear conflict permeates the American populace as the standoff threatens to boil over into war.[i] The situation is being compared with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and for good reason.[ii] The world seems closer to nuclear conflict than any point since the Cold War, with tensions continuing to rise and the potential for signalling errors concurrently increasing. But like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the best way out is diplomacy and an extended time horizon for conflict resolution.

The option to go to war with North Korea is one only a madman would choose. No American preemptive strike, however well executed, could take out North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and its mass of conventional forces aimed at the Seoul metropolitan area, home to 24 million people and critical economic infrastructure.[iii] A 2012 study by the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability projected that 65,000 civilians would die in the first day of a conflict with North Korea, followed by tens of thousands more in the following days. According to the report, 20 percent of North Korean munitions stationed along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) are equipped with chemical and biological weapons, which could increase civilian casualties figures into the millions.[iv] Furthermore, these calculations exclude a successful North Korean nuclear strike. As New Yorker writer Evan Osnos grimly stated, any armed conflict with North Korea would almost certainly yield, “one of the worst mass killings in the modern age.”[v]

The current rhetoric of President Trump that blithely floats war with North Korea is astonishing not just because of the immense toll such a conflict would take, but because the North Korean threat has not really increased, despite the country’s development of ICBMs. General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently stated to the Senate Committee on Armed Services that North Korean nuclear development is “primarily associated with regime survival.”[vi] North Korea is the nuclear porcupine as described by Peter Lavoy: dangerous enough to walk through the forest unharmed, but no danger to surrounding forest dwellers.[vii] Knowing the consequences of war and the intentions of North Korea, the mere consideration of nuclear conflict seems preposterous. Worse, each fiery tweet only increases the chances of a misreading of signals, leading to the lone circumstance where North Korea would strike first.[viii]

All of this is not to say that the United States should accept the status quo with North Korea. The Kim dynasty has established perhaps the most totalitarian state in world history, implementing inhumane and repressive policies.[ix]

Diplomacy may not be in vogue at the moment, but when it comes to North Korea, it is a most capable instrument, and one that should be aggressively deployed. Not only is diplomacy the only alternative to war, it is particularly well-suited to undermine the Kim regime. The first step in this process is admitting the United States has failed to accomplish its goal of preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and delivery systems.[x] The recognition of failure does not, however, require one to give up hopes of eventual reunification or the defeat of the Kim regime. There are diplomatic tools available to the United States and South Korea when it comes to the slow cracking of North Korea’s totalitarian state.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in highlighted some such tools in his speech on North Korea policy wherein he called for a new “sunshine policy,” which would seek more institutional ties with its neighbor.[xi] This could be as simple as opening up factories that staff both North and South Koreans or as dramatic as removing UN sanctions. The shift to a policy of openness would require the international community to acknowledge that economic sanctions are not just impotent, as columnist Theresa Lou recently described in this publication, but counterproductive.[xii] Rather than continue to pursue an adversarial approach, the international community must recognize that the greatest danger to Kim’s rule is increased ties with outside entities.

To some, the lifting of sanctions or providing aid to North Korea would seem to be appeasement. But while necessarily conciliatory in the short term, due to North Korea’s success in the face of American opposition, a diplomatic approach aimed undermining Kim’s hold on power is anything but appeasement. Diplomacy does not ignore Kim’s brutality, rather it precisely targets his ideological grasp on the North Korean populace and, thus, fractures the foundation of his regime.

The governing ideology of North Korea, Juche, is rooted in two things: self-reliance and opposition to the ‘imperialist’ United States. From the time Juche was first articulated by Kim’s grandfather, Kim il-Sung, North Korean leaders have preached to their citizens that each man and woman must give their all for the state because nefarious outside powers seek their destruction. It was this message that fueled the country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. The current rhetoric of President Trump only affirms that choice. Under Juche, North Koreans are told that they must labor intensively because of economic malaise brought on them by a nefarious international cabal, and the current sanctions regime bolsters that message.[xiii] The conduct of the international community, and the United States in particular, only strengthens Kim’s hold on power.

This is not dissimilar to the situation in Cuba in the 1960s. Fidel Castro railed against the “imperialist” United States, blaming Cuba’s insecurity on the constant threat of US invasion and economic failings on the 1960 embargo. The United States only played into this rhetoric with the Bay of Pigs debacle, numerous assassination attempts, protracted sanctions, and hardline rhetoric. Now, Cuba is no longer a threat and, until President Trump took office, its relationship with the United States was thawing. Thanks to diplomatic overtures, US businesses were taking up shop on the island, undermining the Castro communist ideology by bringing a much-needed financial boost to the country.[xiv] It was easy to portray the United States as a bogeyman when the fear of invasion was ever present, far harder when cruise ships full of American tourists were regularly docking in Cuban ports.

The ongoing brinksmanship between the United States and North Korea does not reduce the security threat for American allies or the United States itself, and instead inches the world closer to a horrific nuclear conflict. It is well past time to switch to diplomacy to ease tensions. This does not mean giving up on the goal of seeing the Kim regime one day ended, it simply requires expanding the strategic time horizon and switching to tools that do not threaten the death of millions.

[i] Jeffrey Lewis, “Let’s Face It: North Korean Nuclear Weapons Can Hit the US,” The New York Times, August 3, 2017,

[ii] Jongsoo Lee, “The North Korea standoff is worse than the Cuban missile crisis,” Financial Times, August 1, 2017,

[iii] “South Korea,” The Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, Accessed October 1, 2017,

[iv] Roger Cavazos, “Mind the Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality,” NAPSNet Special Reports, June 26, 2012,

[v] Evan Osnos, “The Risks of Nuclear War with North Korea,” The New Yorker, September 18, 2017 Issue,

[vi] Joseph Dunford, “Nomination — Dunford,” United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, Septempber 26, 2017,–dunford.

[vii] Peter Lavoy, “The Strategic Consequences of Nuclear Proliferation: A Review Essay,” Security Studies, 4:4 (Summer 1995), 695-753.

[viii] Vipin Narang, “Why Kim Jong Un wouldn’t be irrational to use a nuclear bomb first,” The Washington Post, September 8, 2017,

[ix] “Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” United Nations Human Rights Council, February 7 2014,

[x] Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry, “If Necessary, Strike and Destroy,” The Washington Post, June 22, 2006,

[xi] Ruediger Frank, “President Moon’s North Korea Strategy,” The Diplomat, July 13, 2017,

[xii] Theresa Lou, “Matching Means and Ends in North Korea,” Georgetown Security Studies Review, September 30, 2017,

[xiii] Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Says UN Sanctions are Causing ‘Colossal’ Damages,” The New York Times, September 29, 2017,

[xiv] Joshua Partlow and Peyton Craighill, “Poll shows vast majority of Cubans welcome closer ties with U.S.,” The Washington Post, April 8, 2015,

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