Incoming: The Most Dangerous Country in the World
People often ask me about what keeps me awake at night after a long career in the military. What is the country that worries me the most? Russia? China? Iran? Pakistan? All are good candidates; but the most dangerous and unpredictable is North Korea.
First and foremost, the so-called “young leader,” Kim Jong Un, is dangerous in his own right—a wolf in a clown suit whose portly figure, short stature and slightly dazed look belie a cunning and deadly actor trained in the harsh court of his father’s shark tank. He is mercurial, unstable, medically challenged and utterly ruthless.
The regime possesses nuclear weapons, perhaps a half dozen, along with the nascent ability to deliver them at range on a variety of ballistic missiles. Kim regularly rattles the nuclear saber at South Korea as well as at the United States and Japan. This nuclear threat holds down a squadron of U.S. Aegis missile destroyers to protect our Japanese allies. While it seems unlikely he would use a weapon in a way that could provide full attribution, it is not beyond the reach of the imagination, given his youth, inexperience and emotional state. Additionally, no one can rule out a North Korean decision to proliferate a nuclear weapon, perhaps to a violent extremist group, that would be used against the United States. Emotional and unstable leadership plus deployable nuclear weapons equals a deadly combination.
Additionally, the regime is a serial violator of human rights. To get even a glimpse of the treatment of prisoners in the “paradise” of North Korea, read The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot. It is a brutal and factual account of the imprisonment of a once-prominent family in the North Korean gulag. Another good work is the brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson about day-to-day life under the regime. Today, more than 200,000 political prisoners, out of a population of only 25 million, live in conditions worse than anything Stalin imagined.
We should worry as well about the conventional military capability of North Korea. Nearly 2 million troops are on active or reserve duty, with another 6 million paramilitary. This force is roughly twice the size of South Korea’s, which has a population twice as large. The North Koreans are superb innovators and very creative in the use of special forces, maritime insertion, espionage, kidnapping and other paramilitary activities. And yes, we still have nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, most just south of the border and in immediate harm’s way—guaranteeing us enormous losses in the event of an attack. More than 10,000 North Korean artillery pieces sight downrange on Seoul daily.
It also is worth noting that North Korea is a constant proliferator of conventional weapons, and it is edging into weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical and biological. Despite a starving population, it has national resources to turn to producing weapons of all kinds, many for export despite U.N. sanctions. We see North Korean missile shipments moving around the world and turning up in the most dangerous and destabilizing places, from east Africa to the Caribbean to the Middle East.
Lastly and most publicly, North Korea poses a cyberthreat. Its recent attack on Sony in the wake of anger over the silly film The Interview cost the company $250 million and untold amounts of business goodwill through the concurrent release of internal emails and other proprietary data. President Obama has spoken of proportional response, and hopefully that is forthcoming. By comparison, if North Korea sank a $250 million U.S. tanker, what would our response be?
Given the evident danger posed by North Korea, there have been recent calls to overturn the regime, most notably by the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haas. Others call for a variety of lesser actions, but clearly a growing sense exists in the international system of the dangers posed by the North Koreans and especially by their leadership.
First and foremost, we need to work within the international system to put pressure on China to curb the dangerous trends emanating from Pyongyang. China controls perhaps 90 percent of the economic trade of North Korea, and it is the only nation that could exert serious political control over the young leader. Having said that, the execution of “China’s man in Pyongyang” earlier in 2014, Kim Jong Un’s uncle, hardly inspires confidence; yet the reality is that almost every road to affecting Pyongyang goes through Beijing.
Second, the United States should encourage regional cooperation in the face of North Korean belligerence. Japan and South Korea have begun to share intelligence, cooperate together and prepare for the eventuality of conflict coming out of the North. As a strong partner and ally to both nations, the United States should encourage this strongly. Given the historical tension between Japan and South Korea stemming from centuries of conflict, this will be challenging but well worth pursuing.
The third approach to North Korea is to go after its financing, much of which comes through counterfeiting and the proliferation of weapons. Our efforts to cut that off, along with international partners, is crucial.
Lastly, the use of the cyberweapon by North Korea shows that we need to find ways to disarm the North Koreans in this domain. Clearly this has the full attention of Adm. Mike Rogers, USN, and his capable crew at the National Security Agency/U.S. Cyber Command.
The road ahead with North Korea is long, winding and scary. It will require strategic thinking, tactical action and international cooperation. The prize—a peaceful unified Korean peninsula—is well worth the effort. The danger in ignoring North Korea or believing it to be comical as portrayed by its leader would be a disaster.
Adm. James Stavridis was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander for NATO from 2009-2013. He is the 12th Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, from which he holds a Ph.D. in international law, and he is chairman of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Board of Directors.