Foreign Policy

On North Korea threat, appeasement is finally off the table


After North Korea’s July 4 missile test, time is running out for the international community, led by the United States, to respond to an increasingly belligerent rogue state.

In a column for The Hill published just before the November 2016 election, “North Korea grows nuclear program at expense of US security,” I concluded with this chilling assessment of the situation in North Korea:

“This combination of a growing threat of global nuclear reach and unpredictability create a security and political challenge for our next president. When you couple these with the potential for worldwide export of this capability to both state and non-state actors and only poor options available to deal with the threat, the next president will face a major challenge on day one that can quickly spiral out of control.”   

Now that our next president is in office he is faced with a major challenge and still has only a limited number of poor options. Some of these options include: Do nothing; appeasement; military intervention; and diplomatic action.

To do nothing would effectively embolden North Korea to continue on their current path of escalating belligerence and growing strategic military power. This course could also telegraph a message of encouragement to other state and non-state actors that they can act with impunity against the interests of the United States.

Secondly, history sometimes rhymes, and an appeasement strategy has often failed. Historian Barbara W. Tuchman observed in “The Guns of August,” her Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the beginning of World War I: “Meanwhile the Liberals had been elected. Traditionally opposed to war and foreign adventure, they were confident that good intentions could keep the peace.” Twenty-four years of modern appeasement in an effort to stop North Korea’s march toward becoming a nuclear power have only served to remind the world of then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s complete failure with his own policy of appeasement toward Adolf Hitler.

President Clinton’s “Agreed Framework” policy to provide oil in exchange for North Korea’s suspension of their nuclear weapons program broke down after Pyongyang’s failure to give up their uranium enrichment program. President Bush’s “Six Party Talks” was another attempt to exchange fuel and food for North Korea’s pledge to shut down their nuclear reactors but broke down after a few years of negotiations failed to slow down North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile delivery program. President Obama’s “Strategic Patience” policy’s attempt to isolate North Korea did not result in the desired international trade, monetary or diplomatic isolation. These policies of previous administrations failed to curb North Korea’s progress toward becoming a nuclear power with global reach.   

There is always the military option on the table. Such military actions could be strategic in nature or tactical surgical strikes of North Korea nuclear and weapons delivery facilities. Would that require a response in kind from North Korea against Japan, South Korea, or the United States with conventional, chemical, biological and nuclear weapons?  

As mighty and swift such actions may be, there will always be a cost to pay. Eric Schmitt reminds us in his 1991 New York Times article, “War in the Gulf: The Weapons; Scud Missiles: An Arsenal of Terror,” how elusive Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles were to locate and destroy. “The Scud have proven difficult to wipe out, despite the allied forces’ overwhelming air supremacy.” This armed conflict could create a situation akin to the prelude to World War I that may quickly spiral out of control into a greater world-wide conflict adversely affecting millions of lives.  

Did previous diplomatic and economic policies fail because of the inability of past administrations to gather effective international support for such actions? Possibly, but this would mean that for such actions to have any effect there must be an international desire to implement and follow through on any announced sanctions against North Korea. There must be effective sanctions that impact North Korea’s ability to transfer money, diplomatic isolation from the world order and cessation of trade with the international community. Without cooperation from the entire international community, North Korea will only continue to see condemnation by international bodies such as the United Nations as nothing more than idle threats.

North Korea has seen many international diplomatic threats and actions come to nothing. They will in all likelihood ignore future actions, fully expecting the international coalition to follow historical precedent and crumble.

However, if these sanctions do get the necessary support from the international community, North Korean leaders may sense a grave threat to their very existence. With the limited options of fight-or-flight, and no perceived escape, they may choose the irrational course to fight with a first strike by lashing out in all directions with all means at their disposal. This would certainly require a full scale response. While forces are committed to this conflict, other rogue states may perceive an opportunity, precipitating unexpected global conflicts.     

Left with the failure of past administrations to develop an international alliance to face North Korea, our current leadership must choose a course of action which can only minimize the guaranteed consequences of North Korea’s belligerence. But as time marches on without a cohesive international effort followed with committed worldwide action, the threat of a nuclear confrontation with a global impact only grows toward a certain climax.

John M. DeMaggio is a retired special agent in charge and served as a captain in the U.S. Navy. The above is the opinion of the author and is not meant to reflect the opinion of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. government.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


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