No doubt exists that North Korea’s recent belligerent and irresponsible rhetoric is kinda scary. The question, of course, is how to respond to it. The usual response of a superpower, which conducts an overly militarized foreign policy, is counter-threats and intimidation. The United States pulled out its most fearsome weapons—the B-2 stealth bomber, the B-52 bomber, and the F-22 stealth fighter and had them essentially buzz the North. Even worse, the United States, in an agreement with South Korea, further enmeshed itself in the intra-Korean histrionics. The United States pledged, in addition to coming to South Korea’s assistance if a full blown war breaks out, to assist that nation in the event of even minor North Korean provocations—for example, the North’s shelling of a border island. Because the North is paranoid of a U.S. attack, American involvement for such minor provocations is just more likely to unintentionally lead to an escalation to major war.
Another important question is why does North Korea play this high-risk game? Although one reason may be for a young, weak North Korean leader to seem tough to consolidate his influence with the North Korean defenses, the most important power broker in North Korean society, another may be because, in the past, North Korean bluster has paid off. In prior episodes, despite martial demonstrations against North Korea’s threats, South Korea and the United States have caved in to bribery by providing foreign assistance to calm the situation down.
Many parents make the same mistakes with their misbehaving children. They first threaten them and then, when that doesn’t work, they appease them. Children are much more sophisticated than many parents realize. They can distinguish rhetoric and action; the child knows to disregard parental hot air and focus on actions. North Korea is the same way; making counter-threats to the country and then eventually negotiating and appeasing it with further desperately needed assistance merely teaches it that misbehavior and brinksmanship brings rewards. And, of course, the initial U.S. threats strengthen the North Korean regime by allowing it play the “rally-around-the-flag-against-the-external-enemy” card.
Instead of threats followed by appeasement, parents might have more luck by simply ignoring—that is, withholding love—from a misbehaving child. Thus, the child will quickly learn that he is not going to gain anything from acting up. Being ignored is the ultimate insult, because counter-threats indicate that the one who makes them is elevating the petty misbehavior to a level of importance enough to warrant a response.
At the official level, ignoring North Korea has not been U.S. policy because American policymakers hold out the vain hope that they can dangle assistance to North Korea and get the country to not only behave better, but to get rid of its nuclear programs. Of course, the more threats the United States makes, the less likely the paranoid North Koreans are to get rid of those programs. Once the United States faces the twin realities that North Korea is never going to give up its likely few nuclear weapons and that South Korea, much wealthier than its northern neighbor, should be defending itself, American ignoring of North Korean bluster becomes a whole lot easier.
Enhancing U.S. missile defenses (if they will actually shoot down anything) may not be a bad idea, but if even this augmentation exceeds limits, North Korea will be shown implicitly that it can get a rise out of the United States. Accepting North Korean nuclear weapons as a reality also will alleviate the need for the isolating policy of continually imposing additional counterproductive general economic sanctions against Kim’s regime. The sanctions make destitute North Korea more likely to sell nuclear and missile technology to rogue states and terror groups to get desperately needed hard currency. Furthermore, the United States should take the opposite tack from strengthening the U.S.-South Korean alliance, even for responses to minor North Korean provocations, and should instead gradually wean the now rich South Koreans away from the U.S. conventional and nuclear umbrella that now heavily subsidizes their defense, giving them five years to enhance their defenses before ending the relationship. This change in policy would allow American citizens to avoid sacrificing their cities to protect South Korea in the future (North Korea’s current threat to the United States is severely constrained by the difficult tasks of shrinking a nuclear warhead to fit on top of a missile and developing and successfully testing a missile with the range to hit the United States). Even if friendly South Korea thought it necessary to replace this now outdated, Cold War alliance with nuclear weapons, that outcome would be better for the American people than nuclear war on their own soil.
Although at the official level, ignoring North Korean blustering, while taking adequate measures to defend the United States–not South Korea–from the future limited threat that North Korea might pose, the U.S. government should not discourage or have disdain for visits by private citizens, such as Dennis Rodman, Michael Jordan, or any other Americans who might be invited to visit there. Such contacts do not officially sanction any North Korean policies or their importance, but keep the door open to dialogue through such intermediaries and information about the regime that they might bring. These private visits also help break the isolation that the Kim regime needs to survive and that U.S. government regularly haplessly provides with economic sanctions and counter bluster. Let’s show the publicity-hungry Kim Jong-un that his words and actions are a lot less important to the United States than he thinks.