WSJ editorial board agrees with Herbert E. Meyer in AT on North Korea
All the available strategies for dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat seem flawed, save one that has been largely ignored: overthrow from within by the only power that matters, the military, induced with a mixture of carrots and sticks. Herbert E. Meyer graced these pages almost three months ago with a knowledgeable discussion of how that could be approached, pointing out what needs to be known and done from the perspective of a Reagan-era top CIA official. His view gained powerful support today from the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board.
A policy of regime change needn't require an invasion or immediate unification of North and South Korea. Security in Northeast Asia could also improve if the Kim regime is overthrown from within by generals or a political faction that wasn't determined to threaten the world with a nuclear arsenal.
The U.S. does have policy tools to promote this strategy, especially if the goal of regime change is clearly stated. Some are economic, such as the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act that cuts off North Korean banks from the dollar-based international financial system. The Trump Administration recently began to sanction Chinese banks and trading companies that violate U.N. sanctions, and the list should be expanded.
Washington could also promote the truth to the North Korean people and elites about the Kim family's crimes. If army officers believe that Kim is leading the regime toward disaster, they will have an incentive to plot against him.
The Trump Administration can encourage that calculation by drawing a red line at further long-range missile tests. Shooting down future test launches would deny the North's researchers the data to perfect their re-entry vehicles. It would also show U.S. resolve to stop the North's sprint to obtain an intercontinental missile that could strike the U.S. mainland.
The other audience for this policy is in Beijing. Chinese leaders have long calculated that a nuclear North might serve the strategic purpose of driving the U.S. out of the region. And if the U.S. pursues regime change in the North, Beijing will at first react angrily and blame Washington for destabilizing the region.
But a debate is already underway among Chinese elites about the wisdom of supporting the Kim dynasty. China might decide to manage the process of regime change rather than allow a chaotic collapse or war on the Korean peninsula, perhaps by backing a faction within the army to take power.
A military dictatorship beholden to China is no guarantee of reconciliation between North and South. But it would be preferable to the erratic Kim regime and its strategy of nuclear blackmail. A new government would need to grow the economy to build its legitimacy, and it would need foreign investment.
Here is some of what Herbert E. Meyer wrote:
We can argue all day whether Kim Jong-un is crazy, but it's obvious he isn't, um, normal. He's held onto power, and he's kept within his grip the loyalty of North Korea's generals. These generals aren't crazy. Crazy people cannot build weapons, organize complex programs to develop nuclear bombs – or build roads, operate electric power systems, keep the trains and buses running, assure that at least some food gets produced and distributed, operate schools and hospitals. They must be hard, practical, and highly intelligent. And while they may not be charming and fun to hang out with, they aren't suicidal. (snip)
Is there some way to break Kim Jong-un's grip on his generals – to snap them out of their hypnotic spell and help them to organize a coup before it's too late?
For an effort like this to have even a chance of success, we'll need answers to these questions:
Who are these guys? Presumably our intelligence service knows at least something about the two or three dozen officials who actually run North Korea. Well, which ones are most likely to abandon Kim and work with us? Who are the ones we would like to see take power?
How do we reach them? Of course, we can communicate with these generals over the airwaves, so to speak. That would involve official statements by President Trump and his national security team threatening war, and clearly offering a guarantee of regime survival in exchange for disarmament. But there must also be ways of reaching these officials individually – and very privately.
What precisely do we want them to do? We want the generals to replace Kim and his closest advisors with officials who will work with the U.S. to dismantle North Korea's nuclear weapons program, then work with South Korea to establish the kind of sullen but stable peace that existed for decades between West and East Germany.
What help do they need? It's possible that a serious threat to attack by President Trump, combined with the offer of regime survival in return for disarmament, will be sufficient to push at least some of the generals into taking action. But they may need more help, for instance a massive propaganda campaign to generate support for them before they act by telling the North Korean population how their lives will become immeasurably better once Kim is replaced. The generals also may need the kind of help that only a powerful intelligence service like ours can provide, for instance a covert communications system so they can be in touch with us, and with one another, without being overheard by Pyongyang's security officials. They may even need the kind of help only the Pentagon can provide, for instance SEAL Team Six.
China's help would vastly increase the chances of success. Beijing's diplomatic and intelligence services probably have a better grasp of what's actually going on in Pyongyang than ours. And they can probably provide detailed information about which generals to work with, and which to avoid – or remove. Most of all, the North Koreans would have far more confidence that a guarantee of sovereignty by the U.S. and South Korea would hold if China's leaders backed it publicly, as well as privately. And if the Chinese would promise to provide the level of economic support that North Korea needs to keep it at least stable, and perhaps more prosperous than it is now, that would help encourage the generals to act. Let's hope that President Trump at least talked about all this when he met at Mar-a-Lago last month with his new best-buddy, Chinese president Xi.
We are flattered.