Commentary: Wrong approach to North Korea

Commentary: Wrong approach to North Korea


Barack Obama advised president-elect Donald Trump that North Korea would be his biggest foreign policy problem. A medical analogy helps understand why Obama was wrong.

A doctor first diagnoses the patient's problem, then prescribes the proper treatment.

Ideally, treatment can cure the problem, perhaps with surgery or medication. But when no cure exists, the doctor seeks to control it so it doesn't kill or disable.

Diagnosing the Korea problem was easy. Any country with atomic bombs might use them, with devastating results. If it has intercontinental missiles, the danger increases.

Prescribing was not so easy. Should we seek a cure – complete elimination of North Korea's atomic weapons? Or should we content ourselves with managing North Korea, living peacefully with it despite its atomic bombs?

Official U.S. policy has been to seek a cure: North Korea's complete "denuclearization." But no matter how much economic pressure we apply, persuading North Korea to denuclearize will be impossible. Giving up its atomic bombs would be crazy, and the regime is not that crazy.

Tiny North Korea doesn't plan to conquer the world. The regime – which we correctly regard as despicable – just wants to deter other countries from attacking it. The bombs are defensive. Given American military adventures during the last 30 years, the North Koreans have had ample reason to fear that we might attack.

Complete denuclearization could be achieved only by invading and occupying the country, a very unattractive option.

We deterred the Soviet Union from attacking us for 40 years. There is no reason why we couldn't deter North Korea. Its leaders understand that U.S. retaliation for any attack would destroy North Korea.

Previous administrations of both parties assumed that we needed to cure the North Korea problem rather than managing it. The Trump administration continues to profess its intent to cure the problem.

But Trump's correspondence and meetings with Kim Jong-un have confused the situation in a way that could turn out to be helpful. Like Inspector Jacques Clouseau, an incompetent detective who always gets his man in the “Pink Panther” movies, Mr. Trump may have solved the North Korea problem.

For practical purposes the United States has backed off from the impossible goal of curing the problem. We appear to be edging towards recognizing that there is no cure for this "disease" and that we must learn how to manage it.

Former national security adviser John Bolton, who apparently never met a war he didn't like, correctly predicts that "under current circumstances, he [Kim Jong-un] will never give up the nuclear weapons voluntarily." His diagnosis is first-rate. But Bolton's prescription is to use force to bring about a total cure, and it is reassuring that he was recently removed from his White House position.

If we opt to manage rather than cure this problem, we must stop putting economic pressure on North Korea and work instead to encourage reforms there.

Water boils when internal vapor pressure, increasing at higher temperatures, exceeds atmospheric pressure on the water. Like water, governments are subject to internal and external pressures. North Korean leaders have exploited unpleasant memories of the Korean War to protect themselves from internal pressures to reform.

As long as the pressure from outside North Korea exceeds pressures from within, the political pot will not boil and the regime is secure. To encourage reforms, we should therefore eliminate the economic sanctions with which we have unsuccessfully pressured its leaders to abandon their atomic ambitions.

An improving economy, more contact with other countries, and relaxed external pressure could fuel popular demand for reforms, making a crazy government less crazy. Our government should discontinue policies that will never deliver a cure and that isolate North Korea and make reforms there more difficult.

Paul F. deLespinasse of Corvallis is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon and a number of other states. This column originally appeared in NewsMax.


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