Fort Report: North Korea
I once met a young man who had escaped from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), commonly known as North Korea. He shared his harrowing tale of fleeing, capture, jail, and, ultimately, freedom. He is grateful for his new life and shares the enthusiasm of liberation. To this day, for reasons of safety, he has to keep his identity and whereabouts quiet. He lives with the fear of retaliation. His plight is indicative of an entire nation.
The people of North Korea live in a harsh and insular climate marked by fear, desperation, and depravity. The country is defined by a psychological construct of belligerent nationalism, marked by the cult of leadership worship. North Korea has the fourth largest army in the world, and its leader, Kim Jong-un, has repeatedly threatened us. He is paranoid, young, and he has nuclear weapons. The world has a very serious problem.
While the Korean War is an increasingly distant memory for our nation, perhaps there is no more vivid example of the gift of American leadership than on the Korean Peninsula. The sacrifice of American troops enabled the people of South Korea to build a flourishing economy, a governing system that adheres to democratic values, and a population that enjoy the general liberties we have in America. That sacrifice continues today as we have 28,500 troops remaining as a guardian force. While to the North it is a dark scene.
The key to understanding North Korea's power revolves around its neighbor China. The People’s Republic of China claims to be troubled by North Korea's behavior, yet, in many ways, it plays a double game. China likely cooperates with the North Korean regime in subtle ways below the public radar, possibly lending technology that North Korea could not advance on its own. North Korea’s wild and provocative actions also further Chinese interests by keeping the international eye off of Chinese transgressions: China’s contradictory capitalistic-communistic model, its militarization of the South China Sea, its belligerent attitude toward transportation in the East China Sea, and its mercantilist maneuvering throughout the world in the name of “progress.”
From China's viewpoint, it has a legitimate worry about a destabilized North Korea, lest a refugee crisis appear on its doorstep. Moreover, China has a long history of victimization by its neighbors. And it has a long memory. United States troops nearby trouble them. China has plowed its newfound economic largesse into a large military buildup.
Days before a high-profile United States visit by Chinese President Xi, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile, an entirely predictable response to the Trump-Xi meeting. What is less predictable is where the situation goes from here. As the Administration has stated, the time for "strategic patience" has ended. A central goal of the United States has been to encourage stable and just economic, governing, and social systems around the world in the interest of international stability. It is the right thing to do and it is smart public policy. Strategic patience allows time for next-generation leaders to understand and seek a new direction. When necessary, enhanced economic pressure and a robust defensive posture are used to incentivize new directions. However, with North Korea accelerating its destructive technology and threats, strategic patience has reached its limits.
In foreign affairs, we optimally assume that others will behave rationally and according to commonly accepted values. The case of North Korea sadly illustrates the danger when lethal technology is combined with reckless motivation. China's leverage could help deescalate this situation, and we need them to do so. Just as we saw in a missile strike on Syria for gassing children, now we enter into a new phase of strategic impatience.