So for Kim Jung-un, or Kim the Third as I have called him, the support for his regime from Beijing and Moscow is absolutely indispensable. Kim came to power in 2011. He inherited a very bad economic situation from his father as did his father from his grandfather. At the end of the Korean War in 1953, the North Korean economy was roughly at par with that of the South. Now it is one of the weakest in the world while that of South Korea is in eleventh position, between that of Canada and the Russian Federation.
Kim the Third is often depicted as a madman with a ridiculous haircut. This assessment is unwise. Since assuming power, he has shown that he knows how to manipulate the “positive” aspects of his forefathers’ legacy. These are essentially four-fold. He has taken effective advantage of the Chinese and Russian interest in using the North Korean regime for their own purposes. He has pursued the military build-up inaugurated by his father. He has been prepared to be ruthless in extinguishing any sign of resistance. And he has shown himself to be a masterful tactician.
Kim the Third is only 33 years old. He will be thinking about how he is going to spend the rest of his professional life. He has no choice but to stay in power, which in turn implies that he must sooner or later succeed in taking over South Korea. But for this to happen, the South would have to be de-Americanized.
How to deal with all this without igniting a world war? This will be anything but easy. Yet, it is doable if the US and its allies remember the lessons of the Cold War and apply them to the situation on the Korean peninsula, suitably adjusted for the different strategic circumstances prevailing in the Asian theatre.
There is no reason why what worked for NATO during the Cold War should not work now for the US and its Asian Allies. The NATO approach was essentially a two-fold one: first, ensure that the Allies had a credible deterrent capacity and, second, pursue an ongoing dialogue with the then communist East.
Something similar now needs to happen in the Asian theatre.
As a priority, the defence capabilities of the US and its Asian Allies need to be strengthened in such a way that Kim the Third will at the very least entertain serious doubts about the capacity of his missile arsenal to threaten his targets in Asia and potentially in North America.
This is about things such as accelerating the full deployment of the THAAD anti-missile systems in South Korea, returning the short-range nuclear missiles to South Korea that were withdrawn after the end of the Cold War and enhancing the reaction speed of the missile interceptor devices in the US arsenal. It is also about riveting up the sanctions against agencies of the Chinese state that are abetting the North Korean build-up.
The second volet is about dialoguing with all the major players. This will not in itself resolve the Korean conundrum, but in parallel with the defensive measures addressed above, it can play a decisive role. Discussion says to the Korean publics that an effort is underway to deal with the crisis with methods short of war. It provides opportunity to inform the North Korean elite of the risks they run of continuing their current course. At the same time, dialogue in the east Asian context is about continuing to work with South Korea and Japan to overcome their World War II demons.
Would this work? It could and it should but at the end of the day what will prove decisive is the quality of leadership on hand in Washington. Should this prove ineffectual – and there are growing signs that it is – an already complicated situation could be slated to become considerably worse.
And Canada in all this? It stands to reason that if North Korea is on the threshold of developing a nuclear missile capacity that could attack targets in Alaska, the same capacity could also in time threaten Canada. Alaska is 6700 kilometres from North Korea; British Columbia is on its southern border. So Canada could find itself in Pyongyang’s vizier, a facile target with currently no ready means of defence or riposte, totally reliant on an increasingly unpredictable Administration in Washington.
But why would North Korea ever want to attack a country like Canada whose strategic profile is more than modest? North Korea is all about bluff. But to maintain the credibility of its bluff, it may sooner or later need to launch a missile that lands close to US territory. Canada would be an easy target.
Prime Minister Trudeau’s government needs therefore, as a matter of urgency, to incorporate missile defence as part of Canada’s NORAD role, working with its US partners to enhance the overall effectiveness of the North American deterrent.
At the end of the day – and I expect sooner that we think – the North Korean regime will fall as will those of its main benefactors. The pivotal question is how many more victims Pyongyang will engender before it croaks.
David Law is a Canadian security and governance practitioner with over three decades of experience in the field. David is currently a Senior Associate with the Kitchener-based Security Governance Group, and a Senior Fellow with it sister organization, the Centre for Security Governance.