Unraveling the Mess in North Korea
By: Jay Ogilvy | Stratfor.comFebruary 1, 2018

As a Stratfor contributor, I generally avoid prescribing policy. But today I can't resist, having found myself in a position to report a policy prescription available nowhere else in English. Philip Bobbitt has come up with a novel proposal for managing the mess in North Korea, which BBC China published in Chinese on Jan. 28. Having access to the English original, as well as five other essays Bobbitt has published in English, I'll use this column to do two things. First, I'll summarize professor Bobbitt's proposal. Second, I'll suggest in ways that its author could not, modesty forbidding, why it's so important that the proposal comes from Philip Bobbitt and why we should listen to him.

A Chinese Nuclear Umbrella Over North Korea

At the center of Bobbitt's solution is the proposal that China extend its nuclear umbrella over North Korea as the United States extends its nuclear umbrella over its allies in the region. This arrangement could reduce Kim Jong Un's incentive to further develop his own country's nuclear capabilities, thereby freeing up resources to bolster North Korea's weak economy. While the plan is not without its own risks — would such a scenario set up a new rivalry between two superpowers that could spark proxy conflicts around the world? — Bobbitt develops it by first critiquing the alternatives and then exploring the motivations of each of the major players to accept this counterintuitive idea. The main alternatives are three: doing more of what we've been doing — diplomacy backed by sanctions; resorting to military force; or allowing North Korea to continue its nuclear buildup in a context of containment and deterrence. Bobbitt is not alone in seeing problems with each.

The first option almost refutes itself. More of the same pressures will produce only more of the same ineffective results. Some proponents hope that more of the same could buy time for a coup or an assassination to unseat Kim. But playing the waiting game is dangerous in a race against North Korea's increasing command of the relevant technologies. China, too, has a lot to lose no matter what scenario a waiting game produces.

If the first option is bland, the second is insane. As Bobbitt put it in an essay last year in Time magazine, "The consequence of a US preemptive strike" against North Korea would leave "Seoul in ruins." Further, it may "well unravel both the system of US alliances and US non-proliferation efforts in the region for which our deterrent has been responsible." Finally, the consequences of such an attack would be disastrous for China in several ways, unleashing a flood of refugees across its border and giving rise to the prospect of a unified Korea backed by the United States right next door.

The third option, containment, has defenders among those who say the strategy worked with Russia and China. Why not North Korea? Bobbitt's reply is to point out the major differences between the three nations and their interests:

"North Korea's paramount goal is to unite the Korean Peninsula. There is no geostrategic ambition so compelling as the unification of societies that have been rendered asunder by war. And while the US deterrent would doubtless protect the US homeland, striking the US homeland is not the North Korean objective. Rather its objective is to put South Korea in the position of asking the United States to leave the Peninsula so as to avoid a conflict that would destroy both North and South Korea."

Further steps in that scenario would surely involve South Korea and Japan developing nuclear capabilities once Seoul had expelled the United States from the Korean Peninsula. Here again, China would find itself more endangered, not less.

A Complex of Initiatives

Having dismissed each of the main options currently on the table, Bobbitt makes the case for his own: "A nuclear guarantee for the inviolability of the North Korean regime from China is the basis for this option, although it sits inside a larger complex of initiatives." And it is this larger complex of initiatives that gives Bobbitt's proposal the plausibility it might otherwise lack. He reminds us that the Korean War never really ended. "Legally, the (conflict) is merely in abatement and has not terminated because no final peace settlement has been agreed upon." He recalls that, after World War II, it was not until 1975 that the Helsinki Accords finally sealed a peace agreement between the Soviet Union and Western states.

Bobbitt continues, and for the sake of precision, I want to quote his own words: "I propose a similar conference, convened by the UN, to include North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, the US and Russia with the objective of finally ending the Korean War and recognizing the borders of both Koreas. Roughly speaking, the US and China would be in the position of the US and the Soviet Union at Helsinki."

What could motivate China to extend its nuclear umbrella over North Korea, and what would motivate North Korea to accept such an offer?

For China, both carrots and sticks could help make the deal seem more appealing. The sticks are the incalculable consequences of the other three scenarios. The carrot? "It would secure for China a diplomatic role as a great power that its economic growth alone cannot achieve."

North Korea's motivation, meanwhile, stems from a deep distrust of assurances by China or the United States that regime change is not the endgame. "Only the capability to deploy hydrogen warheads launched by long-range ballistic missiles that could destroy American cities can provide an ironclad guarantee for the regime." And right now, China has that capability.

North Korea might gain long-range nuclear capability and might believe that such a capability would assure its safety. Look at Libya and Iraq for counterexamples that demonstrate the need for nukes. But Bobbitt sees a flaw in this logic that could lead to the destruction of Kim Jong Un's government:

"Changes in technology derived from the revolution in rapid computation that is still accelerating will decisively erode North Korea's retaliatory capabilities. Techniques like hardening and concealment that currently protect the North Korean arsenal are rapidly being made obsolete by advances in accuracy, the timing of detonation and remote sensing devices. New guidance systems, rapid data processing and communications, artificial intelligence and many of the other byproducts of the computer revolution are driving this development. Absent the new North Korean threat to the American homeland, the US might well forgo the pursuit of such damage limiting capabilities because the acquisition of this capacity brings with it other risks, like launch-on-warning protocols. But North Korea's maneuvers to secure its future have made it now so deadly to the US that its eventual destruction is sealed."

The Value of Expertise

I quote professor Bobbitt again at some length because in matters of nuclear technology, I am out of my depth but he is not. In addition to serving as the Herbert Wechsler professor of federal jurisprudence and the director of the Center for National Security at Columbia Law School, he is the author of Democracy and Deterrence: The History and Future of Nuclear Strategy and the editor, with Sir Lawrence Freedman and Dr. Gregory Treverton, of U.S. Nuclear Strategy: A Reader.

And that's just the beginning. He has written another six books, including the monumental The Shield of Achilles about the succession of different constitutional orders since the Treaty of Westphalia; Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century; and, most recently, The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made. (For a summary of these three books, see my column introducing Bobbitt.)

As if that were not enough to make him a voice of authority, he has served as associate counsel to the president; as the counselor on international law for the Department of State; and as the director for intelligence programs, the senior director for critical infrastructure and the senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council. He also put in a stint as senior fellow in war studies at Kings College, London, and another as research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford.

Throughout his career, Bobbitt has thought long and hard about how constitutional law, war and strategy relate to one another. The peace treaties that conclude great wars establish the ground rules for successive constitutional orders. Strategies for carrying large institutions into the future need to shake off obsolete social contracts and craft new contracts in light of the new constitutional order. We can no more go backward in history than an old man can become young.

I know that it is a mark of modernity and the Enlightenment's scientific revolution that we are no longer supposed to accept arguments from authority. Something is not true just because Aristotle said it; arguments, like science, should stand on their own merits. I also know that in the current environment, a distrust of authorities and their vaunted expertise is deepening. But sometimes real authority, backed by learning and experience, exists. Philip Bobbitt knows whereof he speaks. We, and the Chinese, could do a lot worse — a whole lot worse — than listen to him.

This article originally appeared on Stratfor.com

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