Recently, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi compared mounting tensions on the Korean Peninsula, created by North Korea’s continuing missile tests and joint military drills conducted by South Korea and the U.S., to “two accelerating trains, coming toward each other with neither side willing to give way.”
While the intent of Wang’s analogy was to hold both sides responsible for the tensions, the logical assumption in real life when two trains approach each other on the same track is that one is there rightfully and the other is not.
So it is with the situation on the Korean Peninsula. As Pyongyang continues to make threats and undertake acts of aggression, the U.S. and South Korea are rightfully acting responsibly, undertaking military drills to defend themselves against such a threat. On the other hand, the North’s train should not even be there, having been banned by U.N. resolutions from operating.
Pyongyang has repeatedly violated U.N. Security Council resolutions barring it from missile and nuclear testing. It is clear the country’s “Boy Wonder” leader, Kim Jong-un, holds no regard for international authority. Nor does he respect international geographic boundaries, as evidenced by his extra-territorial assassination of his older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in Malaysia last month. After Malaysian authorities concluded the assassination was a North Korean murder plot, Kim irrationally accused the U.S. and South Korea of masterminding it to tarnish the North’s image.
Meanwhile, as China — which now recognizes it can no longer control the North Korean leadership — calls for diplomatic talks involving all parties, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., sees no purpose in holding them, noting about Kim, “We are not dealing with a rational person.”
In the past, following flagrant acts of North Korean aggression – such as the 2010 torpedoing of a South Korean warship, killing 46 – Beijing did little to rein Pyongyang in. Nor was any meaningful retaliatory action taken by Seoul. As the North now acts independent of Chinese supervision and free of concerns about any international retaliation, South Korea and the U.S. moved to install the THAAD missile defense system, much to China’s chagrin.
THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) is purely a defensive U.S. missile system that South Korea, based on the North’s demonstrated missile prowess, now needs to deploy in order to defend itself against a madman China has shown it is either unwilling or unable to control. Beijing’s concern about THAAD is not its ability to shoot down North Korean missiles but its ability to shoot down Chinese missiles as well.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, visiting Japan on March 16, said a “new approach” is needed concerning North Korean aggression. He noted that, for over two decades, diplomatic efforts to denuclearize Pyongyang have failed, as the U.S. contributed over 1.35 billion dollars in financial support to the hermit kingdom.
Various acts of North Korean aggression during this twenty-year period were repeatedly met with South Korean/U.S. inaction. Thus, we have irresponsibly reared an unruly child whose bad behavior is constantly being rewarded. Tillerson is absolutely right about a new approach being needed. One to now try is President Ronald Reagan’s.
In April 1986, Reagan ordered airstrikes against Libya after determining the bombing of a Berlin discotheque, killing two U.S. soldiers two weeks earlier, was ordered by Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. The strikes came close to killing Gaddafi, resulting in his immediate decline in support for terrorism and coming clean with the U.S. on his weapons of mass destruction program.
Two years later, in April 1988, Reagan also ordered the U.S. Navy into action against Iranian ships and oil platforms in the southern half of the Persian Gulf after a U.S. Navy frigate, there to escort Kuwaiti oilers, struck an Iranian mine. (Suffering a broken ship’s keel— normally a fatal wound—the crew was able to save the ship.)
Ordering an attack in retribution, Reagan proclaimed, “We’ve taken this action to make certain the Iranians have no illusions about the cost of irresponsible behavior. We aim to deter Iranian aggression, not provoke it. They must know that we will protect our ships, and if they threaten us, they’ll pay a price.”
While Reagan’s action did not generate Iranian cooperation, it did cause the mullahs to toe the line for a while, until they built up the courage again to challenge the will of future U.S. presidents.
The point is that dictators, whether Arabic, Persian or North Korean, share a common value: self-survival. No one probably worries about this more than Pyongyang’s Kim. He has already executed many members of his inner circle, fearing they were plotting against him. He has also been the target of at least one assassination attempt.
This provides the opportunity for the U.S. to make clear to Kim that he, as dictator with sole control of his government’s extra-territorial actions, will be held personally responsible for any future aggressions. He needs, as Reagan made it clear to the Iranians, to “have no illusions about the cost of irresponsible behavior.”
Kim fully recognizes what this might well involve in an era of drone technology. The U.S. is able to bide its time, striking out at targets thousands of miles away, at will. Kim would undoubtedly endure many sleepless nights worrying whether the next day would find him within the crosshair missile site of a Predator flying so high above he would be unable either to see or hear it.
Such a warning to Pyongyang could well have an added benefit: intimidating Iran’s mullahs. They closely monitor U.S. reactions to North Korea in order to gauge their own boundaries as to what provocations they can undertake and get away with.
For the past eight years, both the North Koreans and Iranians have learned there are no boundaries to the provocations they can initiate against the U.S. and its allies. It is time to demonstrate they are wrong by dusting off Reagan’s old approach towards irresponsible behavior as our new one.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.