It’s Time for the West to Take Its Head Out of the Sand Over North Korea

Another day, another headline about a further North Korea transgression of any number of international norms. What is most shocking about the crisis of North Korea nuclear provocation, however, is the ineffectiveness of the West and the wider world to get Kim Jong-Un to stand down.

The hard truth of the matter is that there is no utility that Kim gains from stepping down from his threats. North Korea is the most insular country in the world, and, thus, does not seek the approval of other countries. It also does not feel the need to accede to the “norms” of peace and diplomacy that are so treasured by international order. Kim desperately wants to demonstrate his nuclear capabilities in order see off any international challenge to his regime. In Kim’s eyes, respect through fear of nuclear attack is far more important than gaining approval from, say, the EU over an improvement in North Korea’s human rights record.

In the face of potential nuclear attack, it is understandable why the world wants to bring Kim to the diplomatic “table”. However, there is nothing substantial that the rest of the world could promise Kim to get him to stop developing nukes. In his eyes, nuclear development is a zero-sum game.

Therefore, it is shocking that the West seems content to stick its head in the sand about the very real threat that North Korea poses to the whole world, not just the US, South Korea, and Japan. This is simply not sustainable anymore, and the West needs to get realistic about its options now rather than when its too late to do anything about North Korea.

On the one hand, the West can continue as it has done for the last few decades, and talk nicely to Kim as he develops a functional nuclear arsenal. This would be a huge mistake, as it demonstrates to other nations (think Syria, Iran, etc.) that the West does not have the will to truly act to stop tyrants from cementing their regimes by stocking nuclear weapons or flaunting other international norms. Obama infamous “red line” in Syria and Russia’s annexation of Crimea already showed rogue nations that they can get away with ignoring the West’s “norms”, and further weakness over North Korea will just encourage dangerous behavior from any number of nations in the future. Additionally, even if Kim does not initially use his nuclear arsenal to attack the West, the possession of nuclear weapons might make Kim bold enough to seek to achieve North Korea’s ultimate goal of uniting Korea. Consequently, Kim might plausibly threaten to nuke the West if they intercede in his invasion of South Korea, even if he refrains from using nukes in the Korean peninsula itself. If the West truly claims to support the security of South Korea’s liberal democracy, it cannot let this possibility come to pass.

On the other hand, the West can get together to face the threat posed by North Korea with unity and decisiveness. This means establishing the strongest possible sanctions on North Korea in areas such as finance, trade, and energy. Of course, the West cannot expect China and Russia to join them in these sanctions. However, if the West waits for China and Russia to join some pan-global consensus on what to do about Kim, they might as well ship over some nuclear weapons as a gift to Pyongyang themselves.

China is the main reason that Kim’s family has stayed in power, and it is high time that it puts away its outdated geopolitical concern of an American invasion through a unified Korea in order to become the positive international actor it claims to be. Russia should be ignored in this process as, although it is part of the UN Security Council, its main overarching goal in international relations is to spite the Western liberal global order in any way possible. That means that the Putin regime will continue to act as a nay-sayer in the North Korean crisis, even if it’s to simply annoy the West. However, it is highly unlikely that Russia would ever come to the defense of North Korea in any other form other than rhetorical contrarianism.

That being said, in order to truly counter Kim effectively, the West needs to consider the possibility of military action. Distasteful as it may be, the truth is that allowing Kim to possess nuclear weapons without any serious repercussions will ultimately lead him towards seeking his goal of unifying Korea. It is right to worry about the potential loss of life in Seoul if Kim were to unleash an artillery barrage or, god forbid, his nukes. However, this threat will never go away as long as Kim and his cronies continue to control North Korea.

Unfortunately, it seems as if only the Trump administration is taking this option seriously. The rest of the West, meanwhile, seems content in painting Trump as having an itchy trigger finger. While they might dislike Trump, the rest of the West cannot possibly tackle North Korea on their own. Like it or not, the US is still the global hegemon, with economic and military power that dwarfs any other Western nation. Therefore, if there is any hope to defuse the North Korean crisis, the West needs to put aside its dislike of Trump’s character in order to act as a collective unit against Kim. At the end of they day, the threat of Kim invading South Korea and/or unleashing nukes, is far more important that re-iterating the fact that you dislike Trump as a person.