by Mike Rogers
(CNN) North Korea’s 32-year-old leader is often mocked online, on TV shows and in movies, but it is believed Kim Jong Un could have 50 to 100 nuclear weapons by 2020 — a reality that should give a chill to anyone tempted to dismiss Kim as anything less than serious. Recognizing the threat, this week the UN Security Council voted unanimously to introduce new sanctions, stating that North Korea should abandon its nuclear weapons program.
As the next administration takes power, it must recognize that we cannot use sanctions and food aid to bring North Korea to the negotiating table only to watch it continue its destabilizing behavior once it receives the aid. Let’s learn from our past mistakes and be sure we address the nuclear elephant in the room. An Iran with “the bomb” clearly would be catastrophic, but we already have a nuclear armed rogue state — and its sophistication is growing.
True, many of North Korea’s policies seem wildly belligerent. But they have often produced specific returns in the form of diplomatic or economic concessions. The big question, though, is where the political and military leadership align with Kim’s own impulses.
Kim is ruthless in his pursuit of power — he has had dozens of senior officials executed, including reportedly by anti-aircraft cannon. And, like his father, Kim has continued policies that have left many thousands starving. Indeed, he is a man who has an absolute authority that rests on his whims — Kim is not the head of a democratic republic with political checks and balances, nor does he have to juggle the power structure within a more autocratic nation like China.
But he may not always be a rational actor. He executed his uncle not long after taking power, an official who was his strongest connection to China, his nation’s economic lifeline. In a country that relies on aid packages and black market goods to try to feed its people, that should give you pause.
Continuing to demonstrate his autonomy from his patron state, Kim also recently ignored Chinese warnings about his weapons tests. This past summer, Kim tested a missile that for the first time landed within the Japanese air defense zone. It was fired from a submerged submarine, which passes a high technical threshold, and could present a greater detection difficulty to regional missile defense systems. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) are a technology few nations possess and allow force projection far outside of a nation’s boundaries.
Kim’s antagonistic behavior has apparently so ruffled the Chinese that they have joined the United States in facilitating sanctions against North Korea at the United Nations. Yet many Americans are probably more familiar with Kim Jong Un’s late father, Kim Jong Il.
The second-generation ruler of North Korea tested two nuclear weapons during his 17-year reign, a number already surpassed by his son, who since becoming leader in 2011 has tested three nuclear devices. North Korea conducted its largest nuclear weapon test yet in early September, showing it is progressing in its development, not just deploying its current models to saber rattle.
Since taking power, Kim has continued anti-US rhetoric, brushed off warnings from China, increased his rate of nuclear and missile tests in continued defiance of UN sanctions and now has SLBM technology. The level of concern was enough to prompt reaction by US Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who stated last month that any nuclear attack on the United States or our allies would result in an “overwhelming” response.
All this suggests that while the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — and the siege of Mosul — dominate what US TV news airtime is not spent on postelection coverage, the growing belligerence of North Korea under Kim should be getting greater attention.
The United States should leverage its diplomatic, economic, intelligence and military capabilities to deter and prevent continued North Korean weapons development. We must strengthen our regional allies’ missile-defense capabilities, ramp up pressure on Russia and China to exercise their influence on the regime, convince China to end the black market flow of goods across the border and increase sanctions on the North Korean elite so they feel the consequences of their actions.
Periods of presidential transition in Washington, DC and the first days of a new government have been times in which our adversaries have tested us in the past. It is imperative that our national security leaders are ready to do more than simply fight terrorism, because our adversaries don’t wait patiently in line.
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