Missile politics: It's time to get serious about North Korea

This Feb. 7, 2016 image released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and distributed by the Korea News Service (KNS) shows a rocket lifting off, said to be carrying North Korea's Earth observation satellite Kwangmyongsong-4, at the Sohae launch pad in Tongchang-ri, North Korea. (AP)

North Korea’s recent successful missile launch drill has put them back on watch by American politicians and media: consequently a return to “weapons of mass destruction” logic seems fast approaching. Even those joking over the egocentric and extensively satirized dictator Kim Jong-un must sober up and suggest a plan to deal with the recent news that the regime has missile technology capable of reaching the United States. So where exactly do we draw the line? 

In his January 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush took a strong stance in positioning America against “axis of evil” countries, saying that “North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens.” President Bush boldly declared, "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us."

So why are they still threatening us? Breaking agreements regarding heavy weaponry and occasional cyber attacks have been a cornerstone of the current North Korean regime led by Kim Jong-un as well as his father, Kim Jong-il and Kim il-Sung before him. The most recent missile launch in North Korea was presented to the public and global community from regime-controlled news stations as an accomplished mission to put a satellite into orbit around the Earth. The success of the newly launched satellite, however, remains to be seen after it tumbled in space for its first day in orbit and still has not yet transmitted data back to Earth, according to Newsweek.

But even as American media and cartoons are eager to poke fun at the mishaps of the Korean dictator and discount his chances of launching a nuclear missile all the way to U.S. shores, the likelihood of an economically desperate North Korea moving nuclear material through the region to other anti-American or terrorist sponsoring states is an increasingly dangerous possibility.

Sanctions against North Korea have done well to accomplish the goal of isolating them from the developed world, but they are not without company in their anti-American sentiment. If we really want to increase the pressure on North Korea it has to be with diplomacy and getting other forces in the region like China to the negotiating table. Kim Jong Un will go down in history as one of the brutal dictators of the modern world, amongst the ranks of Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. It's important we do something about it.

Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship has undoubtedly been worse for the North Koreans than it has been for the countries dealing with the regime’s occasional and empty threats. The truth is that beyond its lavish decorated capital of Pyongyang, the people of North Korea are in deep hunger, malnutrition and poverty. Kim Jong-un executed about 70 of his own officials between 2011 and 2015, according to USA Today, with one report detailing that Kim’s defense minister had been executed in front of hundreds with an anti-aircraft gun supposedly for falling asleep during meetings.

The U.S. should abandon the “better the devil you know” strategy that pervades free trade policymaking, the application of sanctions and military nonintervention, resulting in myriad human rights crises throughout the developing world. The potential for North Korea to advance the militaristic goals of terrorist organizations with nuclear material or weapon technology is an issue that requires serious solutions. This doesn’t include another doomed-to-fail agreement with the regime and the simple refusal to negotiate. 

So as the U.S. moves through its presidential elections process, it is extremely important to voters to elect a president who can lead in foreign policy by uniting other countries by putting more focus on U.N. Security Council enforcement and broadening agreements with principled allies. Once we have groups of countries willing to further restrict the progress of North Korean missile programs and nuclear expansion, can we feel comfortable with our role in the current level of security both at home and in conflicts around the world.

As hungry and oppressed as North Koreans are, leaders like Kim Jong-un don’t seem interested in stepping out of the spotlight or transitioning to a democratic form of government in the foreseeable future. Targeted and unilateral American military actions do not liberate or empower the people of oppressive regimes. Emerging national leaders must unite and commit to a higher bar for security enforcement and global human rights.


Bennett Cognato is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at bennett.cognato@uconn.edu. He tweets @BennyGlenny.