Guy W. Farmer: North Korea: What next?
When it comes to dealing with North Korea’s menacing nuclear weapons program, there are no easy answers. That was the message former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill delivered to Ty Cobb’s National Security Forum (NSF) group in Reno on Tuesday morning.
Ambassador Hill, who has a distinguished diplomatic pedigree, emphasized two important points in dealing with North Korea’s erratic and unpredictable boy dictator, Kim Jong Un: (1) always leave the door open for possible future conversations and/or negotiations on the nuclear issue and (2) convince China stopping North Korea’s nuclear program is our highest strategic priority in the Asia/Pacific region. If I was President Trump or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, I’d recall Chris Hill to Washington to head a North Korea policy task force. This professional Foreign Service officer is the right person for that job.
In addition to serving as our ambassador to South Korea, Hill also served as chief U.S. envoy to Iraq, Poland and Macedonia, and headed the U.S. delegation to six-party talks on the North Korea nuclear issue when he was Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific. He currently is Dean of Denver University’s School of International Studies.
According to Hill, President Trump has tried to persuade China — the one country that seems to have leverage over North Korea — to vote for meaningful United Nations sanctions against North Korea, but Beijing seems uninterested in trying to contain North Korean aggression and opening that hermit-like country to foreign influences. In fact, China’s trade with North Korea has substantially increased so far this year, Hill added.
Hill and Dr. Cobb, who worked on national security issues in the Reagan White House, said China’s reluctance to deal with North Korea “makes the military option that much more likely.” Such a preemptive operation, they speculate, would likely include a “surgical strike” on North Korean missile sites, clandestine efforts to undermine the country’s political leadership and a massive cyber attack designed to destroy North Korea’s military command and control systems.
However, any U.S.-led military attack against North Korea could unleash a nuclear holocaust that would cost hundreds of thousands of lives, including nearly 30,000 Americans who live and work in South Korea. “A decision regarding a preemptive strike is expected soon,” Cobb and Hill concluded.
A recent Wall Street Journal editorial opined “a military strike has to be the last resort because it might lead to a larger war … but Washington can put severe pressure on North Korea and Kim Jong Un by deploying the standard tool kit of statecraft: diplomatic, information, military, economic, finance, intelligence and law enforcement.” If I was a Washington decision-maker I’d be taking a close look at cyber and intelligence options. I won’t elaborate on those options except to say they offer interesting possibilities for undermining the rogue North Korean regime, which seems mostly impervious to U.N. sanctions and international pressure.
“The Trump administration rightly refuses to accept North Korea as a nuclear power,” the Journal continued, “but the U.S. and its allies have never used all of their options short of a military strike to stop that from happening. The U.S. could still bring down Kim Jong Un before he becomes a global nuclear menace, but time is running out.”
I think the North Korean dictator is already a nuclear menace, and that’s why Ambassador Hill says there are no easy answers to the question of how to stop continued development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. As Hill and Cobb noted, however, you can’t do it with silly, 140-character tweets, that’s for sure.
Guy W. Farmer, a retired diplomat, is the Appeal’s senior political columnist.