The more one learns about North Korea – its unconscionable human rights violations, its gulags and summary executions, the way it locks its citizens in and tortures or kills them when they try to escape over the Chinese border, the way every foreign visitor must follow a strict itinerary and be accompanied by a government agent, its nuclear threats and other reckless international behavior, its ugly militarism and the fascist personality cult built up around its "Dear Leader" and his family, and its insistence upon maintaining the least-free economic system in the world, a system in which starvation and malnourishment are rampant – the more sympathetic one becomes to the siren calls of confrontation and conflict.
International observers are right to loathe the North’s government and to feel deep concern for the North Korean people and their families in the South. The situation of those trapped in the North is unacceptable, and it has been unacceptable for decades.
When looked at through the conventional lenses of international security and international relations – lenses that focus on power relationships, security-seeking strategies, and coercion – the problem of what policy stance the U.S., Japan, and South Korea should adopt toward the North appears intractable.
There are no good options. But any discussion of what options exist for the Obama administration in formulating its policy toward North Korea must begin with a clear, unequivocal understanding that war is not an option, and that it must be avoided at all costs – that is, it must be decided against in every case, with the possible exception of a direct, unambiguous, large-scale attack by the North against the South.
In the decades since the armistice that ended the Korean war in 1953, the North has built itself into a bunker state; it has diverted enormous amounts of its scarce resources to preparing for war, and it has acted under the assumption that the U.S. could invade it at any time. It has also made no secret of its desire to see the Korean Peninsula united under the Kim regime – something that will, thankfully, never come to pass.
The result is that North Korea has a standing army of over 1 million troops, a small nuclear arsenal, a network of militarized tunnels, and a bevy of heavy artillery aimed at, and quite capable of reaching, Seoul and other South Korean cities. Roughly 70 percent of the North’s active military personnel are stationed within 90 miles of the DMZ and are capable of overrunning Seoul on short notice. As the U.S. considers its options in responding to North Korea’s recent and future provocations, we must always ask ourselves: What could justify acting in any way that might set this powder keg off?
North Korea’s outrages against human rights and its foreign policy of blackmail, arms proliferation, and utter disregard for international law and stability will continue to make headlines in the United States, and it will continue to provoke our anger, fear, and indignation. It will lend fuel to the arguments of those instigators who want war with North Korea.
Pacifist historian Howard Zinn once wrote, "We need to decide against war, no matter what reasons are conjured up by the politicians and the media." One might make an exception to this rule in cases where the United States or its closest allies are directly attacked by a hostile power, but until words turn into actions, the belligerent rhetoric of North Korea’s regime remains mere words, and words, unlike war, do not kill.
If we recognize that war cannot be a solution to our conflict with North Korea, what options are we left with? On one hand, there is the option of further isolating the country and imposing stronger sanctions on it. This was the response of the Obama administration to the North’s recent nuclear and missile tests. These new sanctions follow the "tit-for-tat" logic of game theory: they aim to punish the North for the tests without being the final word on the matter. There is no chance that the sanctions will be strong enough to topple the Kim regime, and however justified they may be as a response to the North’s missile tests, they bring us no closer to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Isolation and sanctions have been tried for 60 years, and they have dramatically failed. The other option is not a pleasant one, but it is only one that makes sense; it is the last option standing. The Obama administration must immediately and aggressively pursue direct talks with the Kim regime aimed at a comprehensive solution to the conflict and an official end to the Korean War.
The U.S.’ two central goals in its dealings with North Korea must be, first, to avoid a devastating war in Northeast Asia, and second, to dramatically improve the situation of the millions of individuals trapped in the political and economic wasteland of the North. Confrontation has not accomplished and will not accomplish either aim, and it has not furthered and will not further America’s national and global security priorities. It is time for direct talks aimed at a comprehensive peace.