Saturday, October 28, 2017

North Korea and Munich

The solution to the present problem of North Korea seems obvious–we should have invaded them a little more than a decade ago, just before they developed nuclear weapons. It looks like the modern version of the lesson of Munich: Britain and France should have opposed Hitler early, when he was still weak, instead of going along with the annexation of the Sudetenland. More generally, it is the argument for a foreign policy of figuring out early who are going to be your enemies and opposing them before they get strong enough to be dangerous.

That argument assumes that your nation not only will have an interventionist foreign policy, it will do it right. The U.S. has an interventionist foreign policy, as demonstrated in, among other places, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It had one in 2006. It did not do anything serious to prevent North Korea from obtaining the ability to drop a nuclear weapon on the U.S. because the cost of invading North Korea would have been large and immediate, the cost of not doing it more than two elections away. The benefits of an interventionist foreign policy conducted by a government no more competent at it than ours is are much less than the Munich argument implies. 

The costs are much greater. Modern U.S. history provides several striking examples, but I prefer a less familiar one.

A while back, rereading the first volume of Churchill's history of the Second World War, I discovered something interesting. The first time that Hitler attempted to annex Austria he was stopped not by France or Britain but by Italy. Mussolini announced that Italy would not tolerate a German annexation of Austria and made his point by moving Italian divisions into the Brenner pass. Hitler backed down.

What changed? When Italy invaded Abyssinia, England and France announced that that was a very wicked thing to do and took token actions against Italy for doing it. Mussolini concluded that Italy's World War One allies were not his friends and were not very dangerous enemies. The next time Hitler wanted to annex Austria, Mussolini raised no objection.

In Churchill's view, the correct response of the Allies to the Abyssinian invasion was either to forcibly prevent it or to ignore it. The first would have brought down Mussolini's government, the second would have retained him as an ally. Either a non-interventionist policy or a competent interventionist policy would have worked. The incompetent interventionist policy they actually followed gave Hitler his one significant ally.

What, in the absence of a time machine, can now be done about North Korea? The U.S. could, the President hints that it might, launch a full scale attack, probably nuclear as well as conventional. At this point that might not cost very many American civilian lives, since North Korea probably does not yet have the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the U.S. mainland, although it soon will. It would result in a very large number of civilian deaths in South Korea and possibly Japan. And in North Korea. It might happen, but I do not think it is likely to. Or should.

The alternative is to recognize that we are back in the world of mutually assured destruction, this time, fortunately, with a weaker opponent. Technological progress has made it possible for a relatively poor country to build intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear, perhaps thermonuclear, warheads. We are, however, enormously richer than North Korea--our GDP is more than six hundred times theirs--and considerably more advanced. The strategy that suggests is the one Reagan adopted for dealing with the Soviet Union, a competition in defensive weapons that they could not afford to win. I do not know enough about the current status of anti-missile technology to judge how workable that is, but I do not see any better alternatives.


Unknown said...

I'm not going to claim that I have a great solution to the problem of North Korea, but another weakness of the solution you propose is that the North Korean government has already shown that it is willing and able to impoverish its citizens to a far greater extent than the Soviet Union was. There were multiple power centers in the USSR, and the attempts to match US military progress took resources away from other groups that could weaken the Politburo's hold on power. That doesn't seem to be the case in North Korea.

They can't match US military developments, but they only need to convince the citizens that they have, not the rest of the world.

My favorite proposal is still the one hidden in Marc Stiegler's final exam. Dropping a million cheap smart phones on the country and scheduling a visit by a fleet of Google's Loons seem to be more likely to lead to productive instability.

Roger said...

We invaded Iraq and Libya before they could get nukes. How well has that worked out?

We chose not to invade India and Pakistan when they got nukes. Those countries have not nuked anyone yet.

N. Korea has long had the ability to destroy Seoul, even without nukes. It seems to me that nukes have not changed the equation too much. We can invade and destroy N. Korea, but Seoul will get destroyed also. Is it worth it?

David Friedman said...


Our GDP is about six hundred times North Korea's. It was only several times that of the USSR. I think a difference of two orders of magnitude more than balances the difference in how willing the countries are to impoverish their citizens.


Neither Syria or Iraq has nukes. India and Pakistan have no reason to use nukes against anyone but each other.

John Dougan said...

No discussion of the North Korean situation is complete without a discussion of their historical enablers and protectors: China and Russia/USSR. It is only relatively recently that Russian and PRC attitudes have changed enough that doing anything serious about the DPRK/Kim Dynasty has been feasible. For that matter, the situation with China is still a bit tight despite their having announced that if the DPRK attacks the US first, no support will the DPRK get from China.

To be fair, the PRC leadership does have genuine concerns, it is understandable they would not want a US allied united Korea on their borders. What has changed is they don't want a nuclear armed DPRK that can blackmail for economic "aid" either.

Quentin Langley said...

China could intervene at relatively low cost whereas the cost to the US of aggravating China would be very high.

It is even possible that China could intervene effectively simply by urging North Korean Generals to depose Kim.

US presidents have not, so far, persuaded Xi that it is in China's interests to intervene. Trump's robust threats, and the well-grounded fear that he may be unstable or irrational, may well persuade China where the polite entreaties of Obama failed.

David Friedman said...

China would not want a united Korea on their border, but they might have no objection to a North Korean government that was allied with, perhaps a puppet state of, China. And that would be a great improvement from our standpoint--China already has nuclear weapons.

It would also be an improvement from the standpoint of most of the inhabitants of North Korea.

John Dougan said...

There are, or at least have been, a number of historical desires and conditions that have made the Korean situation unresolvable up until now. In no particular order (and probably with messed up tenses):

Both the DPRK and the ROK want to unify the peninsula, but not with the others political system.
China does not want a united US aligned Korea on its border.
Japan, the USA, etc. do not want a DPRK united Korea.
Historically, the US aligned powers have not wanted a Chinese controlled Korea.
The US aligned powers want South Korea/ROK to continue as a prosperous ally and trade partner.
China does not want the inevitable flood of poor Korean refugees if there is a war or the DPRK collapses.
The ROK does not want to have to pay for fixing North Korea. They really like their current standard of living. They studied the West/East German unification carefully and it is going to cost an astonishing amount of resources and several generations to fix, as it is worse than the German situation. They have a fund for this, as the FDR did, but it is recognized to be too small.
The general populace of the DPRK had been convinced over many generations that the USA, the ROK, China, etc. are all, in some way, out to get the DPRK and it's glorious legally mandated Kim dynasty leadership. Any obvious non-Kim puppet government would have run into this issue. Thus the assassinations of various possible Kim heirs.
East Asian ethnic groups often hate or are at least disdainful of other East Asian ethnic groups. This had obvious implications for any obvious puppet government.
The older generations of South Koreans are still unhappy with and distrustful of the Chinese and Russians for supporting the North.
The DPRK has an astonishing amount of tube artillery lined up within range of Seoul. It is possible that they have VX or other gas agents available in sufficient quantities. Even if it is just mostly regular HE shells, the northern part of Seoul could be in ruins before the US and ROK forces could destroy enough of the artillery sites.
The DPRK has broken treaties and agreeements regularly.
The USA doesn't want to pay for the reconstruction of the ROK again.

And there are more. My general point is that your thesis, the the US should have invaded 10 years ago, is incorrect. There are a lot of factors that made that dangerous and could have started a general war or at least destroyed the people and economy of the ROK. I do think too much emphasis was placed on the treaty process and on kicking the can down the road, and I suspect we could have come to roughly the place we are now about 5-10 years ago if we had just given up on trusting the treaty process in the 90s and made other moves in parallel. But not earlier than that. 1992 was a hard limit on starting the process, and it took awhile before everyone was ready to face the issues.

Sharper said...

Sounds like one strategy would be to make a deal with the Chinese that they can have North Korea if they want, but they have to disarm the territory in order to not make the South feel threatened any longer. It's not a threat to them directly, because they would still have their military in China to respond to any future aggression, but they'd be removed far enough to have a bigger tripwire for Seoul, etc...

Not sure the Chinese would take that deal, though.

The biggest threat South Korea could make to North Korea would be to start a temporary evacuation of civilians out of Seoul farther south, until they hit the 1/3 they can put into shelters. That would give any invasion threats a lot more credibility.

Max said...

North Korea wasn't weak before they got nukes. They had the ability to destroy Seoul with artillery. That's why the nuclear arms control agreement made by the Clinton admin was weak (later scrapped by BushJr), because the U.S. threats of war weren't highly credible. Of course, threats of war are even less credible now.

BC said...

Before NK had nukes, an argument against pre-emptively invading it was that NK could strike South Korea with conventional artillery. Now that NK can strike South Korea and Japan with nukes, that becomes an argument against striking NK to prevent NK from obtaining nukes that can reach the US. Once NK has nukes that can reach the US, that could become an argument against preventing them from doing something else (invading South Korea?)... Call this incremental hostage taking: hostage takers threaten to kill 100 hostages unless we hand them 10 more. We comply to avoid 100 deaths. Then, the hostage takers threaten to kill all 110 hostages unless we hand them another 50, etc.

Arguably, China is attempting a similar strategy in the South China Sea: install some military assets that fall below a threshold that would provoke a US response but strengthens China's military position. Use the strengthened military position to install even more military assets, making a response even more costly to the US, etc.

Why does the US seem to have difficulty finding a similar "incremental hostage taking" strategy? For example, why can we not destroy some NK capabilities, say artillery pointed at Seoul, stopping short of a full scale invasion that threatens toppling the regime? Then, having incrementally reduced the artillery threat to Seoul, diminish it incrementally again, etc. What is the asymmetry that prevents the US from incrementally advancing its position against NK without provoking a retalliatory strike against South Korea and Japan?