“Washington has a long habit of painting its enemies 10 feet tall—and crazy,” as Fareed Zakaria once noted. Thus, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in December called North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program—which according to American intelligence still probably lacks the capacity to hit the U.S. mainland with a nuclear weapon—“the most destabilizing development, I think, in the post-World War II period.” More destabilizing, evidently, than Stalin or Mao’s far larger nuclear arsenals; or the break-up of the British, French, and Soviet empires; or the rise of China; or a changing climate that could soon make major cities uninhabitable. If Pyongyang’s nuclear program is allowed to proceed, McMaster continued, North Korea—whose GDP is one-50th the size of South Korea’s and which spends one-fifth as much on its military—might “reunify the [Korean] peninsula under the red banner.”
Depicting North Korea’s nuclear program as an expression of its geopolitical might is exactly wrong. The program is actually a result of the North’s extraordinary weakness. Which is why the Trump administration’s strategy of threatening Pyongyang with war—and making it feel even more imperiled—is exactly the wrong way to curb its nuclear program. Kim Jong Un possesses nuclear weapons, above all, to deter an American attack. Thus, the best way to limit his arsenal is to help him deter such an attack without nukes. That’s the rationale behind Naval War College Professor Lyle Goldstein’s wildly counterintuitive, and oddly compelling, proposal: The United States should ask China and Russia to deploy troops on North Korean soil.
To understand Goldstein’s reasoning, it’s necessary to grasp how North Korea’s increasing weakness has propelled its nuclear program. The Stanford political scientist Scott Sagan has observed that “most international relations scholars have a clear and simple answer” to why countries develop nuclear weapons. They do so “when they face a significant military threat to their security that cannot be met through alternative means.” Over the last half-century, the military threats to North Korea have swelled while its alternative means of protecting itself have withered. Thus, Pyongyang’s obsessive pursuit of nukes.
First, consider the shifting balance of power between Pyongyang and Seoul. North Korea has long had a smaller population than South Korea. But until the early 1970s, the two countries had roughly the same per capita GDP. Today, South Korea’s is roughly 23 times higher. Ninety-two percent of South Korea’s roads are paved. In the North, it’s 3 percent. The average South Korean lives more than a decade longer than her North Korean counterpart, and is between one and three inches taller.
North Korea has tried to keep pace militarily by devoting as much as one-quarter of its GDP to defense. And it does have more men under arms than the South does. But the technological gap between the two nations’ militaries has grown more and more extreme. North Korea’s most common fighter plane was unveiled in 1953. The South, according to a 2011 Center for Strategic and International Studies report, has “achieved a massive lead in modern aircraft and surface-to-air missiles.” The same pattern holds true on land. North Korea, notes Goldstein, has “tanks from the 1950s and it doesn’t have gas for those tanks and it can’t feed the soldiers who man them.”
But this is only part of the story. North Korea hasn’t only grown weaker vis-á-vis South Korea, it’s grown weaker vis-á-vis the great powers as well. During the Cold War, North and South Korea each had important patrons, which fought alongside them during the Korean War. Then, in 1991, the North’s most powerful ally, the Soviet Union, collapsed. Its successor state, Russia, annulled its mutual-assistance treaty with Pyongyang and opened diplomatic relations with Seoul. By 1992, the Russian and South Korean navies were visiting each other’s ports.
At around the same time, North Korea’s other major ally, China, began cozying up to South Korea too, and trade between the two nations quickly surpassed trade between Beijing and Pyongyang. (South Korea is now China’s fourth-largest trading partner. North Korea is not in the top 15.) China’s relationship with North Korea, by contrast, grew increasingly chilly. In his book, No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security, Jonathan Pollack notes that North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung, visited China every year. His successor, Kim Jong Il, who took power in 1994, didn’t visit until 2000.
All this would have been more bearable for Pyongyang had it improved its relationship with Seoul’s Cold War ally, the United States. But that didn’t happen. Nor did North Korea’s relationship improve with Japan. Instead, the United States—newly confident that dictatorships were on their way out across the globe—waited expectantly for North Korea to go the way of East Germany. Pyongyang found it particularly unnerving that the U.S. continued its annual military exercises with South Korea even after the Cold War’s end. A congressman who met Kim Il Sung in 1993 reported that when discussing the U.S.-South Korean war games, the North Korean leader’s voice “quivered and his hands shook with anger.”
“It is perhaps still hard for most people to appreciate how profound the North Koreans’ sense of crisis was” as a result of these tectonic shifts, writes Fu Ying, the chairwoman of the Academic Committee of the National Institute of Global Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. North Korea began its nuclear program, under Soviet tutelage, in the 1950s. But it’s unlikely Moscow wanted Pyongyang to actually develop a bomb, and had the USSR stuck around, North Korea would have had less desire to. “The events of the early 1990s deeply upset North Korea and led to its decision to go its own way,” writes Fu, “including by making the “‘nuclear choice.’” In 1990, American satellites captured evidence that the North had constructed a secret nuclear facility at Yongbyon.
Since then, North Korea’s geopolitical position has only grown worse. As a result of the 1994 Agreed Framework—which shut down Yongbyon—the Clinton administration in 2000 pledged that it had no “hostile intent” towards Pyongyang. But both North Korea and the United States violated the agreement, and when the Bush administration took power, it refused to reaffirm America’s lack of hostile intent. To the contrary, George W. Bush labelled North Korea a member of the “axis of evil,” and then invaded Iraq. Undersecretary of State John Bolton instructed Pyongyang to “draw the appropriate lesson.”
North Korea has since watched America topple yet another dictator who lacked nuclear weapons: Muammar Qaddafi. It’s seen the U.S. practice “decapitation raids” against its own regime. It’s watched Donald Trump declare, in response to a question about assassinating Kim Jong Un, that “I’ve heard of worse things.” And it’s seen the Trump administration both threaten, and mobilize for, war.
It’s also watched China, its last ally, tilt even more heavily toward Seoul. Since he became China’s leader in 2012, Xi Jinping has met his South Korean counterparts seven times. He hasn’t met Kim Jong Un once. Beijing has backed sanctions against the North at the United Nations. Chinese officials have even declared that they no longer feel bound to defend Pyongyang under the Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty that the two countries signed in 1961.
When it comes to security, in other words, North Korea sees nukes as just about all it has left.
The problem with North Korea’s nuclear weapons is not that Kim Jong Un plans to use them. He has shown no inclination toward suicide. It’s that he runs a cloistered, paranoid regime, which lacks good channels of communication with a White House that is fairly cloistered and paranoid itself. There’s also the danger that North Korea might grow so economically desperate that it sells some of its nuclear technology to actors even worse than itself.
But if you want North Korea to abandon, or even limit, its nuclear arsenal, you must convince its leaders that they can do so and still survive. That’s especially difficult after the Libya intervention, since Kim watched Qaddafi abandon his nuclear program as part of a rapprochement with America, only to be later toppled by America anyway. At this point, the promises of non-belligerence that Clinton offered in 2000—even accompanied by a halt to U.S.-South Korean military exercises—aren’t likely to be enough.
Which is why American policymakers need to think more boldly. Rajan Menon of The City College of New York has suggested promising North Korea that if it abandons its nukes, U.S. troops will leave South Korea. But—in addition to weakening America’s position in Asia—an American withdrawal might tempt Seoul, and perhaps Tokyo, to develop their own nuclear weapons. Which would leave the North just as vulnerable as it is now, and make it cling just as hard to its nukes.
Lyle Goldstein’s idea—which he mentions briefly in his 2015 book, Meeting China Halfway, and has elaborated on since—is different. Instead of U.S. troops leaving the South, small numbers of Chinese and perhaps Russian troops would, with Pyongyang’s permission, deploy in the North.
There’s little chance these forces would embolden Kim Jong Un. To the contrary, they would likely restrain him, since China and Russia both value their relationship with Seoul. But the deployments would make an American or South Korean attack on the North almost impossible. Even the Trump administration—which is frighteningly willing to contemplate war with Pyongyang—is unlikely to risk killing Chinese and Russian troops and thus provoking war with Moscow and Beijing. Thus, Kim Jong Un might gain the security to begin curbing, and perhaps even eventually scrapping, his nuclear program. He’d also gain prestige. Receiving Chinese and Russian troops would constitute a major stature boost for a leader who right now can’t get a meeting with Xi Jinping.
There are plenty of reasons to believe this won’t happen. Pyongyang might fear that allowing in Chinese troops would threaten its sovereignty. Perhaps those troops would even take part in a coup. For its part, China doesn’t like stationing troops abroad. (Russia has fewer compunctions.) On the other hand, from a Chinese perspective, war between North and South Korea—followed by either chaos or a peninsula unified under American auspices—would be even worse.
Then there’s Washington, where Goldstein’s proposal turns conventional foreign-policy thinking upside down. Americans generally assume that the greater America’s military advantage in a given area, the safer America is. To suggest that America might enhance its security by welcoming Chinese and Russian troops back to the Korean Peninsula—at the very moment the Trump announces a new era of great power-competition—is head-spinningly contrarian. So is the notion that America might support propping up a regime that Trump has, rightly, called evil.
But radical asymmetries of power haven’t always served America well in the post-Cold War era. They didn’t serve America well when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, two other countries orphaned by the demise of their former Soviet sponsor. And they don’t serve America well when they accelerate North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Moreover, Russian and Chinese deployments might not prolong the North Korean regime. They might instead lower tensions, which would permit closer ties between Seoul and Pyongyang, and let South Korea’s economic and cultural appeal eat away at North Korean totalitarianism from within. It’s worth remembering that the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which at the time appeared to affirm the Cold War division of Europe, ended up undermining it by empowering dissidents in the East. There’s no guarantee, of course. But if the last 25 years of American sanctions and military maneuvers were designed to liberate the North Korean people, they’ve been a dismal failure.
It says something about the foreign-policy debate in Washington that Goldstein’s proposal is probably too radical to receive a serious hearing while the proposal McMaster and Trump keep floating—a “bloody nose” strike that could spark a war that kills millions in Seoul alone—is considered a legitimate subject of debate. Maybe it’s not our adversaries who are crazy. Maybe it’s us.