How do you solve a problem like North Korea?

Ko Yun-hwa, left, administrator of the Korea Meteorological Administration, pointing at where seismic waves observed in South Korea came from, during a media briefing in Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday.

For virtually all of his seven years in office, President Obama has been able to put North Korea’s nuclear program on the back burner while he focused on Iran’s. That probably was the right priority. But during that time, North Korea has slowly, and consistently, become more — not less — of a threat. 

Even if it didn’t really detonate a hydrogen bomb this week (and that’s the initial assessment by the U.S. government and a number of experts), it is aggressively working on its nuclear program. While its missiles have been wildly inaccurate, it also continues to develop technology that would allow it to target South Korea, Japan, U.S. forces in the Pacific — or the U.S. West Coast.

North Korea frustrated presidents Clinton and Bush, too. Obama has insisted it commit to ending its nuclear program before anything else happens. But his policy has plenty of doubters, as this piece illustrates. The next president will have to find a way to deal with a country that doesn’t play by the same rules as the rest of the world. Its leaders don’t want to be part of the modern world or care about improving the quality of life for their people.

The approaches that work elsewhere haven’t worked here. But there are few alternatives: More pressure, up to and including the possibility of military action to degrade North Korea’s nuclear facilities. Or inducements to slow down its nuclear program, which would probably serve to strengthen the leadership and whet its appetite for more concessions.

For some time now, conventional wisdom has suggested that the road to Pyongyang goes through Beijing, North Korea’s closest ally and biggest trading partner. 

That was Donald Trump’s message on Wednesday.

Having a cozy relationship with North Korea is embarrassing — like having Pigpen as your best friend. Relations have noticeably cooled since Xi Jinping took over as Chinese president: Unlike his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Un has not been invited to China.

China was angered by previous North Korean nuclear tests, and was very quick to condemn this one. But some analysts doubt whether China’s influence is as strong as it appears. The North Koreans appear not to have even told the Chinese they were going to conduct this test.

Even if they can, expecting the Chinese to do a lot more runs into some very tough questions of realpolitik. As much as they’re irritated by the young North Korean leader, it’s probably still better to have him there than not. 

If North Korea suddenly collapsed, China would face a flood of refugees crossing the border and destabilizing the northeast part of the country. 

China would suddenly face the prospect of a unified Korea under control of the Seoul government. At a time when China is expanding its influence east and south, and seeks to replace the U.S. as the main Pacific power, this would be a major reversal. China would find itself bordering a country that is a staunch U.S. military ally, where American troops still are stationed.

Finally, the status quo may be useful for China. It can use its ability to pressure the North Koreans as a bargaining chip to gain concessions from the United States on other issues.

China is angry enough that it probably will go along with tougher sanctions against North Korea. But so what? If, as it seems, Kim and the rest of the leadership only care about their own survival, more external pressure just feeds the isolation and paranoia they use to rally the population behind them. It provides a justification for even more strident actions. 

Offering aid and other concessions would probably strengthen the leadership, as well, by marginally improving the economy. North Korea tends to do something provocative when it feels ignored. So dangling offers of assistance would reward bad behavior — and probably encourage another round of bad behavior to wrest even more concessions.

Either approach is a recipe for managing rather than solving the problem, essentially buying time and hoping North Korea becomes more reasonable. That might work, but it hasn’t so far.

What about military action, then? 

As anyone who has followed the debate over a possible military strike in Iran is aware, completely destroying a country’s nuclear infrastructure is highly unlikely. Delivery vehicles might be more vulnerable.

Nearly 10 years ago, Ashton Carter and William J. Perry  urged the Bush administration to conduct a surgical strike on a North Korean missile prior to test firing. Perry served as secretary of defense under President Clinton; Carter is currently Obama’s secretary of defense.

Carter and Perry argued then that even a failed test provided the North Koreans useful information, and that the cost of waiting would be far higher.

If the U.S. wanted to go that route, it would have to work hard to reassure the Chinese — or be prepared for a serious downturn in relations. It would have to make sure that the South Koreans and Japanese, who are far more likely to suffer the consequences, were on board.

All the same, it’s worth tucking this quote in the back of your mind. It’s from military analyst Thomas E. Ricks: “I would not be surprised if one of President Obama’s last acts in office were to launch a pre-emptive strike to degrade North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Hard to get the bombs, but easier to get launch mechanisms and the reprocessing facilities. The Pentagon plan back in 1994 was to use cruise missiles. I think we have better tools now.”

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Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by Kurt Nelson on 01/07/2016 - 10:46 am.


    holds the key – in the form of the only pipeline into North Korea. Shut off that valve, and the state ceases to exist. Nobody else can provide oil the them, and they don’t have any of their own. Of course, the flood of people then going to China is a huge problem, but if they want to really control NK, and be draconian, they can.

  2. Submitted by Melissa Ferlaak on 01/07/2016 - 11:06 am.


    Now that song is stuck in my head.

  3. Submitted by Carrie Preston on 01/07/2016 - 02:58 pm.

    Future for NK

    I am not so worried about NK going after another country with their nukes as I am with them having some kind of accident and blowing up their own country and polluting that part of the world (and not just their own country) with radioactive fall-out.

  4. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/07/2016 - 04:26 pm.

    Let the leadership stew in their own juices

    George W. Bush named Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as “the axis of evil.” We all know what happened to Iraq, which was accused of having weapons of mass destruction, but none were ever found.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the other two members of the alleged “axis” –I say “alleged” because Iraq and Iran have a long history of enmity and North Korea has little to do with either of the others–started making noise about nuclear weapons. They saw what happened to Iraq.

    The North Koreans could not nuke Seoul, only 30 miles across the border, without both contaminating themselves with fallout and bringing down the wrath of the Western world. It would be a suicidal move. My impression on visiting South Korea in the summer of 2014 was that people there were less scared of North Korea than many Middle Americans are of attacks by ISIS.

    North Korea has one of the world’s worst human rights records, but there is not a lot other countries can do about it until the North Koreans themselves get so fed up that they are willing to risk everything to overthrow the Kim family.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/07/2016 - 05:21 pm.

      Good luck with that

      “North Korea strictly prohibits the use, ownership, manufacture, or distribution of firearms by any citizen not serving in the military or special sectors of the government “executing official duties.” Anyone in violation of firearms laws are subject to “stern consequences.”

      According to experts, gun laws were tightened by the late Kim Jong Il towards the end of his reign in an act to ensure control of society and maintain order for the eventual succession of his son Kim Jong Un.

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/11/2016 - 05:25 pm.

        Look at the histories of China and Romania

        During the Maoist era and while the Gang of Four held sway after Mao’s death, anti-Mao forces hesitated to move, because they thought that the Gang of Four’s claim that they “had the hearts of the people” just might be true.

        Then Zhou En-lai died in 1976. He had never approved of the Cultural Revolution, and he had a reputation for helping people who had fallen into the clutches of the Red Guards. Untold numbers of people went to Tiananmen Square and laid down memorial bouquets. The Gang of Four ordered the flowers removed overnight. When the residents of Beijing saw that the flowers were gone, they rioted. They outright rioted, despite having to face the guns of the Red Army.

        Deng Xiaoping and other reformers saw that these riots proved that the Gang of Four were lying about their popularity, so they mounted a coup.

        Deng and his colleagues were still authoritarians, but they were much more lenient than the Maoists.

        I began studying in Japan in 1977 at a university that had a large population of Taiwanese students. They enjoyed watching NHK’s televised Chinese lessons, whose instructors were spouses and children of Chinese embassy officials. The Taiwanese told me that before Deng Xiaoping’s coup, the instructors all wore Mao suits and never cracked a smile. The week after the Gang of Four was overthrown, these same instructors appeared on TV in fashionable Western dress and hairstyles, smiling and joking.

        This was accomplished without any of the common people firing a shot.

        Remember, too, how Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in 1989. It began when a member of Romania’s Hungarian-speaking minority gave an interview critical of the regime on Hungarian television. Since the interview could be seen in the border areas of Romania, that area erupted in riots protesting the official repression of the Hungarian-Romanians. On December 21, a crowd had been ordered to appear to listen to one Ceausescu’s speeches, and one brave person began chanting “Timisoara-Timisoara,” which was the name of the main city in the Hungarian region. Soon the whole crowd was heckling Ceausescu, and nothing he could say would stop them.

        This made the anti-Ceausescu forces in the Romanian military realize that their compatriots would be happy to see Ceausescu go, so they moved against him on December 22.

        Again, this was accomplished by a military coup without an armed populace.

        Such a thing is less likely to happen soon in North Korea, but who knows? In the early 1980s, Jeane Kirkpatrick was distinguishing between “authoritarian” violators of human rights like the Latin American right-wing dictatorships and “totalitarian” violators of human rights, like the Communist countries. Her claim was that we ought not to bother with the “authoritarians,” because they would eventually reform on their own, while the “totalitarians” never would unless they lost a war. 1989 should have discredited her completely, but it didn’t.

        Now we have present-day Jeane Kirkpatricks saying that North Korea can never reform on its own. They should show a little more humility. You never know what might set a population off.

        • Submitted by Jim Million on 01/13/2016 - 11:10 am.

          Jeane Kirkpatrick

          She was the American “Iron Lady,” talking straight talk that many wished to not hear; consequently, many tuned out and turned on the messenger. The international community did pay attention to her position and pronouncements. She was quite effective. She also served in a time when sharp-tongued women were denigrated or dismissed by custom and cultural repression. Certainly, we have grown beyond that, haven’t we?

          Those who embrace Hillary Clinton’s rhetorical toughness regarding many current issues, might also embrace UN Ambassador Kirkpatrick’s no-nonsense approach to critical issues well above the perceptions of most of us typical Americans. Kirkpatrick didn’t play games other than diplomatic chess; nor, did she believe in strength through “please.” Many detractors did not like much she had to say. They did listen, however. She had style, substance and position.

          Leadership is much about being clear and precise, not always cheerful and nice, and certainly not without spice.

          • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/13/2016 - 11:47 pm.

            Way to change the subject

            Irrespective of her personality, Jeane Kirkpatrick had her facts wrong.

            Just a few years after she made her pronouncements about “authoritarian” governments being amenable to change and and “totalitarian” governments being incapable of change, the Eastern European governments had all changed.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/08/2016 - 09:35 am.

      Suicidal Moves

      Why do you think the North Korean leadership would balk at that? One worst-case scenario I have seen involves war between the North and the South. While the South would almost certainly win (especially given US assistance, and no comparable assistance from other nations for the North), the North would go out in a blaze of suicidal “glory.”

  5. Submitted by Carrie Preston on 01/07/2016 - 05:12 pm.

    Brain Washing

    Karen brings up a good point about NK human rights record (much of their population is suffering in work camps for the slightest infractions) and also the idea of overthrowing the Kim family.

    However, after reading Suki Kim’s “WIthout You There Is No Us”, I believe the country is so brainwashed by those in power that they have almost completely lost touch with reality and have been disabled to overthrow the current “government” or stage come kind of coup.

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/07/2016 - 08:12 pm.

    What a possibility

    Very interesting – I didn’t know that military leaders urged Bush to use force against North Korea and militaristic arrogant neocon Bush declined… Maybe if he didn’t, North Korea would have been in the same position as Iraq now is – with no chances to have nuclear weapons. And if Obama had guts to bomb Iran in the beginning of his presidency, we would have had a quiet and safe world with no or minimal problems and very few casualties compared to the current situation… Without Iran’s support, the Middle East spring could have succeeded (Assad would not have had a chance) and Israeli-Palestinian peace could have become a reality (Hezbollah and Hamas would have been history and Palestinians would not have had a choice but to agree to Israel’s offers which would not have been that afraid to make them). Too bad our presidents lately do not have guts to do the right thing.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/08/2016 - 12:47 pm.

      If the Right Thing Had Been Done

      Let’s pretend the gutless George W. Bush would have made a military strike against North Korea. What would have happened? Perhaps they would have sat by idly, and the people would have concluded that the Kim regime was no longer in their best interests. Everything would be ginger-peachy, am I right?

      A more realistic scenario: North Korea fights back, and does so with every resource at its disposal. The peninsula is consumed by a bloody, destructive war. Seoul–which is only 35 miles from the demilitarized zone–would have been turned into a smoking ruin. One of East Asia’s economic and political success stories would be destroyed, and probably rendered uninhabitable for generations, all so the President of the United States could show he had some backbone.

      As far as the bombing of Iran goes, that comment scarcely merits a response. Do you really think that the presence of Iran was a major factor in the failure of the Middle Eastern spring? Is Iran really the stumbling block to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians?

      There is also the broader conflict between the “guts to do the right thing” and international law (see, loss of national legitimacy and negative opinions engendered by violations of), but that’s another matter.

  7. Submitted by Jim Million on 01/07/2016 - 11:27 pm.

    Timing of Possible U.S. Action

    Mark’s final paragraph raises a timing issue perhaps to our advantage, if we truly believe neutralizing NK is to our collective regional advantage. Given China’s significant financial stress right now–this year, this week, and likely worsening–including serious conjecture of currency devaluation, China might not now be an obstacle to the NK solution(s) we have deferred.

    If we are really “pivoting to the West,” this year might be the right time to punctuate that promise.

    It’s a gutsy call, and timing is everything, but opportunities are also fleeting. Decisive action in North Korea might possibly alter some Middle East metrics, as well. I just hope whatever is decided is done without press leaks and media polls.

    It’s like trying to play three-dimensional chess on cracked plastic.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/11/2016 - 01:12 pm.

      Timing and pivoting

      Personally, when we attacked Iraq, I was completely baffled at pivoting from Afghanistan at all, let alone toward Iraq. If we were going to concern ourselves with any other country at that time, the obvious target would have been North Korea. But that would have been a bad time. Of course, so was Iraq, if there ever was a good time for Iraq. I’m as close to being a pacifist as you get, and even I was ok with Afghanistan becoming a sea of glass if it meant we could destroy Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. And pivoting at all at that time was a bad idea, let alone to one of the stablest places in the Middle East (even if the leader was a Very Bad Man).

      So, is it time to pivot now? Maybe? We’re still entrenched in the mess that is Iraq, and the joke that is Israel/Palestine/Syria. BUT, China is slowing down as an economic power. China needs to focus on stabilizing as they transition from aspiring middle class to stable middle class, or they might miss their window on that. With North Korea acting like a spoiled child with a big bully (China) having their back, China risks its status as a credible world power by letting Mr. Kim unleash so much insanity. On the other hand, if we wait for China to recover before pinching off NK’s supplies, it seems almost inevitable that NK would be annexed with little power by anyone else to stop it. That wouldn’t be good news for much of the region, let alone our South Korean allies.

      So, yeah, it’s complicated, but it might just be time to pivot. We shouldn’t be the body, but only the pivot point, though. North Korea WANTS us to attack them, much like ISIS, so they can prove that we’re the evil bullies they’re claiming us to be to their people/recruits. There’s nothing more unifying than a common threat.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 01/13/2016 - 11:28 am.

        Maybe a Window

        I like your continuity of thought, Rachel. I do believe we may now have a strategic opportunity regarding North Korea. China is not the current reason for restraint, as in past decades when China had little trade or diplomatic relationships with Western powers. The metrics now seem better, and we now seem to better understand them.

        Chine likely could remove Kim if we show them the favorable calculus. Japan and Philippines must also be considered in any strategy, of course. Let’s hope the Obama Administration can take advantage of these current alignments and take some acceptable yet decisive action this year. Let’s see if anything comes of these considerations.

  8. Submitted by Doug Gray on 01/08/2016 - 10:06 am.


    I would hope my country would have at least learned from its late experience in the Middle East not to offhandedly launch attacks at other nations, certainly not those that despite crushing economic problems manage to maintain millions of soldiers and thousands of artillery tubes in range of one of our allies’ capital cities. Remember when we were going to overrun all those tanks out in the desert and all we needed to bring was lots of trucks to haul away the rose petals the grateful liberated residents would be throwing at our brave warriors? War in mountainous North Korea would make the Iraq debacle look like a Sunday school picnic.

    Sitting down and talking with North Korea is the best of a set of bad options. The moment we need to capture is not one where we set off another costly war we cannot win with another hermetic, sociopathic, totalitarian regime; it is one where we catch that regime in a mood to trade its Potemkin nuclear program for something that might give it some actual security and possibly start it participating in the life of the larger world around it. With luck, next time we won’t welsh on our own bargain like we did with North Korea in 2001.

    I can’t resist posting the “military expert’s” paragraph preceding his suggestion to let slip the dogs of war. He is obviously whatever the opposite of serious is:

    “In other news from NoKo, one of L’il Kim’s top aides died in a car crash. I guess it beats being perforated by an anti-aircraft gun. And no. 2 back, thoroughly re-educated. They also blew off some sort of big bomb yesterday.”

    That is like the joke about the headline in the Boston Herald after New York City got nuked, “Hub Man Killed in A-Blast.” Except that it’s not funny. Not funny at all.

  9. Submitted by Jim Million on 01/08/2016 - 11:07 am.

    Nice to Read New Submissions

    Mark really knows his stuff, writing with responsible observation of foreign affairs based on many years of experience. He is exactly the caliber of columnist needed here to provide solid background for thoughtful comments. He truly elevates discourse. Please follow him and freely submit well-considered comments, elaborations and personal knowledge.

    Certain other writers seem to attract shallow potshot artists, or those simply making their regular strafing runs. Not Mark. Let’s keep his contributions at the level they deserve by continuing to bring sophisticated comments to this space.

    Thanks for joining these pages and helping produce thoughtful threads.


  10. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/08/2016 - 08:33 pm.

    Whose suggestion?

    Mr. Holbrook, you probably didn’t notice but I based my opinion on the advice of the top military leadership of our country so I would guess that they thought of the possibilities that you mentioned. On the other hand, I can appreciate your praise of President Bush – it is rare to hear it from the left. As for Iran, of course it is a stumbling block in the peace between Israel and Palestinians. Don’t you think that a party that supports the most evil terrorist organizations that constantly attack Israel on Palestinian behalf may have a strong effect on both Israelis and Palestinian thinking?

    Mr. Gray, I can only repeat myself here: If top military leadership suggested attacking North Korea, they most likely thought of all the problems you mentioned (remember that was after the Iraq war). As for Iraq war itself, it was a quick and decisive victory with minimal casualties which was spoiled by a very bad political decision to stay there and help Iraqis – why do people keep forgetting about those things? I also wonder if you have ever lived in a totalitarian country because if you did you would not hope for them to be in the mood to trade anything…

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 01/09/2016 - 01:35 pm.

      i wonder…

      When Carter and Perry suggested a strike against North Korea they were not “top military leadership” but rather university professors. “Top military leadership” at the time opposed the idea. If a dispassionate review of the history doesn’t convince you, I could assure you from personal knowledge (service in the US State Department’s Bureau of Political Military Affairs during the first North Korean nuclear crisis) that “top military leadership” at the time was well aware of the very real costs of any military action against North Korea and was hardly enthusiastic for such an undertaking.

      I also wonder what color the sky might be in the world where the US debacle in the Middle East that nearly cost it its position as a global superpower could possibly be described as “a quick and decisive victory.” Perhaps you could enlighten me on that.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/09/2016 - 05:14 pm.

        Yes, victory

        Mr. Gray, “Perry served as Secretary of Defense and Carter as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration” (from that article) so they were “top military leadership” as I said, though not at that time, which means that they were qualified to consider, and dismiss, all potential problems of such a strike. And Mr. Carter is also a current secretary of defense…

        Iraq war started on March 20, 2003 and Baghdad was captured on April 12, 2003. Fewer than 200 coalition troops were killed. Saddam was captured in December 2003. Doesn’t this constitute “clear and decisive victory?” Whatever happened after that was not a part of the war but a part of a ridiculous attempt to build a democracy in Iraq which is a completely different thing. If America withdrew its army after Saddam’s capture, it would have been a great success making America much stronger for a very long time

        • Submitted by Doug Gray on 01/09/2016 - 10:04 pm.

          flaming success

          By those criteria the W Administration was a flaming success, since if it had never invaded Iraq in the first place there would have been no Great Recession and we would not now be fighting ISIS at home or abroad. Unfortunately those who have to deal with the North Koreas of the world in a serious way also have to deal with the world as it exists, not as it might be in some alternate reality.

          • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/10/2016 - 09:52 am.

            Potential success

            No, Bush administration was not a success exactly because of a mistake of staying in Iraq but not because of attacking it. The logical conclusion from the facts I presented would be that it is OK to attack North Korea but we should not be staying there to build a democracy there – that should be their problem; our task should be to remove the danger of nuclear weapons from North Korean regime and nothing more – the same as it should have been the only task in Iraq war (which, by the way, was achieved). So please re-read my post: Bush would have been a success if it did not STAY in Iraq, not if it did not invade Iraq.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/10/2016 - 02:17 pm.

      Military Leadership

      What do you suppose the actual military leadership thought? I’m not talking about defense-wonk academics and former high-ranking Pentagon officials, but the folks in uniform who would actually be doing the military striking? Did anyone ask their opinion?

      “On the other hand, I can appreciate your praise of President Bush – it is rare to hear it from the left.” Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

      “As for Iran, of course it is a stumbling block in the peace between Israel and Palestinians.” When Iran was a client state of the US (Or was the US a client of the Shah, installing him and propping him up as his regime turned increasingly authoritarian? Opinions differ), the Palestinians and Israelis were at loggerheads. The presence or absence of Iran seems to matter little.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/10/2016 - 07:03 pm.

        Who is right

        Mr. Holbrook, people who wrote that were past and FUTURE military leadership, not just wonks.

        So Bush was right twice. When were Clinton and Obama right (let’s limit it to international affairs for now)?

        Even though this is actually off-topic here, but I never said that Iran was the only stumbling block. I just said that it would help if it were not there…

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/11/2016 - 09:29 am.

          Twice Right

          I think you are reading a bit more into that homely phrase than was intended.

          I fail to see what the records of Clinton or Obama have to do with whether Bush made the right decision in not invading North Korea.

  11. Submitted by Jim Million on 01/11/2016 - 11:20 am.

    Sound of Music

    This, Mark, is to let you know one reader caught your titular bow to Rodgers and Hammerstein.

    Well done, sir!

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