CFR chief: Next, let's do regime change in North Korea

Some people take their movie choices seriously. With the whole country talking about the Sony hack, North Korea’s involvement in it, and the fate of a hipster comedy hanging in the balance, Council of Foreign Relations president Richard Haass wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal urging American foreign policy to focus regime change for Pyongang. We’ve got a Kim Jong-un fever, and there’s only one cure, Haass argues:

A debate is under way about how best to respond to North Korea’s cyberattack on Sony , an attack designed to punish the firm for making a movie that humiliated Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Ideas range from a cyberattack to weaken North Korean political and military assets to relisting the country as a state sponsor of terrorism, presumably accompanied by new sanctions.

These ideas are fine as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough. The serious threat posed by North Korea far transcends cyberspace. Only one approach is commensurate with the challenge: ending North Korea’s existence as an independent entity and reunifying the Korean Peninsula.

Pyongyang possesses between four and 10 nuclear devices as well as hundreds of short- and intermediate-range missiles. The regime has active uranium enrichment and plutonium programs. It is only a matter of time before North Korea can place a nuclear warhead on one or more of its missiles and produce missiles capable of reaching the U.S. The regime is already a known proliferation threat—a decade ago it was helping to build a nuclear reactor in Syria—and it remains a potential source of missiles and nuclear materials to rogue states and terrorists.

North Korea also poses a serious conventional military threat. With a population of only 25 million, it maintains the fourth-largest standing armed forces in the world. North Korea’s active military forces are twice those of South Korea, even though its population is only half that of its far wealthier southern neighbor.

Let’s stop here for a moment, and consider this argument in light of another area of foreign policy. The Obama administration has worked for years to push talks with the mullahcracy in Tehran and thereby normalize relations with Iran under its present regime. What about the above arguments is terribly different for Iran? They don’t have a nuclear device yet — we think — but they have more infrastructure dedicated to it. They have a population three times the size of North Korea, one of the largest nations in its region. They also oppress their people with a quasi-military ruling caste led by Islamist extremists. They fund multiple terror networks that actively attack American allies, and occasionally the US itself.

Pyongyang is already isolated; why not push for regime change in Iran, where it would prevent nuclearization and end support for terrorism? The Obama administration isn’t actively pursuing a normalization plan with North Korea (although they’ve apparently tried to do so), and the only real existential threat North Korea represents to the US at the moment is the power to frighten us out of our local cinemas. And that assumes that it was Pyongyang that actually quarterbacked the Sony hack, which some still doubt.

What would China think about regime change in North Korea? After all, Beijing has been the DPRK’s champion for decades, and has the muscle to back up the Kim regime. Haass argues that the collapse of the Kim dynasty is in China’s interest too:

China needs years and more likely decades of relative stability in the region so that it can continue to address its many domestic challenges. North Korea is a threat to such stability. Meanwhile China’s ties with South Korea have flourished. China is the South’s leading economic partner; Chinese leader Xi Jinping has traveled to Seoul but not to Pyongyang.

So what needs doing? The priority must be to persuade China that the demise of North Korea need not be something to fear.

Oh, is that all? Haven’t we been making that argument for decades already? Even the North Koreans have discussed reunification, except on their terms; the subject isn’t exactly verboten in diplomatic circles. North Korea exists because China sees it as an asset to their plans, for reasons that we may not entirely understand. The moment that Beijing decided that the Kims and their junta didn’t serve their purposes would be the moment prior to the end of the DPRK. China doesn’t want a truly democratic and capitalist West-friendly Korea sitting directly on its border. If they did, it would already be there.

Besides, our foreign policy in this region has been tilted toward reunification ever since the 1953 truce, and especially since our opening of relations with China in the 1970s. Haass argues as if we’ve pursued peaceful coexistence as anything except a short-term status in service to the end of the partition on terms of democratic reform in the North. We have always aimed at reunification on our terms, and one reason the Kims have been so insular is because they know that’s exactly what we want. They’re the last Stalinists for a reason, and it’s not an irrational choice for the Kims themselves insofar as American policy dictates. They’ll be the first against the wall when regime change occurs, and they know it.

Steve Hayward believes Haass’ essay to be a signal of alarm over current American policy, thinly disguised:

They don’t make ‘em much more Capital-E “Establishment” than Haass, who is president of the uber-establishment Council on Foreign Relations. The CFR is hardly a nest of adventurous Bushoisie neocons. Still …

By now even establishmentarians like Haass are noticing and starting to be alarmed by the abdication of American leadership that Obama represents. Whether Haass’s view that our explicit object should be regime change in North Korea can be debated, but it is a moot point right now. Clearly neither Obama nor anyone on his foreign policy team has any interest, let alone ability, in engaging the Chinese and other Asian powers in such a purposeful and sustained way. The only foreign policy object Obama and Kerry care about is sticking it to Israel. Haass’s memo is intended to catch the attention of Obama’s successor.

That’s probably right — but even then, North Korea is the wrong target for the Bushoisie.