'Containment-plus' must be Washington's and Seoul's policy for North Korea

'Containment-plus' must be Washington's and Seoul's policy for North Korea
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“It is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at the goal itself, but at some more ambitious goal beyond it.” — Arnold Toynbee

Alarm bells went off in Seoul and Washington after the military parade that accompanied the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of North Korea: The appearance of a new, larger road-mobile North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), capable of ranging the United States, sparked renewed concerns. In response, the U.S. and South Korean intelligence apparatuses sprang into action to revise the scope and scale of the threat.  

As my former colleagues in the U.S. and South Korean military and intelligence services rightly pore over the details and seek definitive answers for range, payload, fuel and guidance questions, now may be a good time to take a step back and take stock of where the North Korea issue stands and what to do — or not do — about it. So, where does this missile development fall in that closed-loop escalatory cycle that has dominated discourse between North Korea and the rest of the world for the past quarter-century?


Certainly, this development is a source of concern on multiple levels in the U.S. and South Korea and needs to be treated as such. Department of Defense (DOD) planners must weigh the implications for missile defense, for example, just as South Korea must contemplate another stressor in the U.S.-South Korea strategic relationship — which we might call the “Trading Seoul for San Diego” question as a stand-in for the strategic uncertainty the nuke-tipped ICBM injects into the alliance. Deadly serious decisions must be made, resources and new technology marshaled, and men and women of U.S. and South Korean armed forces and intelligence services inexorably moved a little more into harm’s way, in one way or another, to investigate and counter the threat.

But before we become caught up in another round of escalation with North Korea, now is the time to consider our position — the U.S. and South Korean position —  and the values that underpin them. There is a profoundly immutable and hostile regime in North Korea that covers its tragic misgovernance — indeed, justifies its very existence — on the supposed threat from the U.S and South Korea. We cannot wish its intent to be other than it is, just as we cannot forcibly dislodge Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnOvernight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing North Korea calls U.S.-South Korea missile development hostile policy Biden's invisible foreign policy success MORE from power. 

The well-practiced solidarity of the North Korean leadership proceeds from its criminal core. Its existence is grotesque, and even absurd, until you look at the issue from the perspective of individual shared accountability. Even to participate is to admit complicity in the devil’s cornucopia of human rights violations, malfeasance, theft and murder that is work of the unnamed criminal gang that runs North Korea. Personally, I am reminded of Milo Minderbinder’s immoral but profitable Syndicate in “Catch-22” — everyone of Kim’s cronies “has a share” and all the parachutes are gone.

Arnold Toynbee, the late British historian quoted at top, might view the North Korean issue in the civilzational rise-and-fall paradigm he called “challenge and response.” The brutal, dictatorial North Korean regime fits neatly into the “challenge” category, but what of our “response”? I ask the question pointedly, because it’s not what you think.

From the U.S. side of the response paradigm, we need to do our part to reinvigorate the alliance with South Korea to make it the dynamic ideal it ought to be. That means to stop quibbling over money issues; it means that whatever U.S. leadership emerges after the elections, it must find a way to understand the value of the relationship as opposed to merely its dollar cost. For South Korea, it means embracing the “cold shoulder” toward North Korea, and a cessation of the belief that North Korean leadership can be moved, even incrementally, off its heartless totalitarian path. 


It is hewing for the long haul to the only path open to us: A policy of “containment-plus,” which takes all opportunities (the “plus” part) to slowly but inexorably ratchet up pressure. The sweet spot is increasing pressure without provoking open conflict — boiling the proverbial frog in a pot, if you will. Set this policy course. Get used to living in this space. And then forget about them.

The task left to the U.S. and South Korea is, I believe, Toynbee’s “ambitious goal beyond”: building a model alliance founded on mutual respect and unassailable strength. Internally, it means taking up the myriad social and economic challenges in South Korea and the U.S., transforming both countries into model democracies based on respect and, yes, care for the governed. Ultimate victory over North Korea will, in the end, be a side effect of this effort — an appropriate end for a regime in the North that, were its legitimacy measured in moral terms, deserves only this kind of slight regard.

Since I opened with Toynbee, I will close with Toynbee: “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” In the human context, I have some moral reservations with the idea of assisted suicide, but in the case of North Korea, I’ll make an exception.

John Finbarr Fleming is a 31-year veteran of the CIA who had multiple overseas tours before retiring this year as assistant director of the CIA for Korea. He is now senior director for strategic projects at Owl Cyber Defense Solutions. The opinions expressed here are his own.