Any discussion of the tools employed by the United States with respect to North Korea should begin with the military response to the North’s invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950. That invasion, supported by North Korean leader Kim il Sung’s ally in the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, precipitated a major war that would last until the armistice ending the fighting was signed three years later. That war, which drew in massive numbers of Chinese troops following U.S. General Douglas MacArthur’s decision to push the invading North Korean troops all the way back to the Sino-Korean border, began a period of large-scale deployments of American troops that lasts to this day. Those American soldiers, currently numbering 28,500, form the backbone of the U.S. policy towards North Korea, and constitute the most important “tool” in the U.S. foreign policy arsenal. The number of American troops based on the Korean Peninsula varies over time, depending upon levels of tensions at any given time between the north and the government in Seoul, South Korea. Some U.S. soldiers are stationed in bunkers right at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea along the 38th Parallel, and represent a sort of “tripwire,” the crossing of which by invading Northern troops would represent the start of another major war.
American military soldiers stationed in South Korea are to for the purpose of “deterrence.” Their mere presence, it is calculated, forces North Korea’s erratic, unpredictable rulers to think twice before attacking the south. This policy of deterrence has been largely successful, as there has been no large-scale attack by North Korea since 1950. Smaller-scale provocations by North Korea, however, have occurred in the hundreds since then, including terrorist attacks against South Korean officials in Burma (Myanmar), the North Korean sinking of a South Korean naval vessel on March 26, 2010, killing 46 sailors, and numerous attacks by North Korean commandos infiltrating the south through tunnels and by submarines off the South’s coast, including the January 1968 assault on the South Korean president’s official residence (the Blue House). These attacks have been a regular occurrence and have testified to the North’s enduring hostility towards its more liberal, economically-successful neighbor to the south.
Beyond military deployments intended to deter a major North Korean attack – and provocative acts have also occurred against Japan – the main U.S. foreign policy tool directed against North Korea has been economic sanctions. These sanctions have prohibited U.S. companies from selling products or services to North Korea, have prohibited North Korea from exporting to the United States or from having access to the U.S. financial system, have prohibited U.S. financial institutions from conducting business with any foreign financial institution that does business with North Korea, and have banned North Korean officials from traveling to the United States. The U.S. role in global affairs, especially its economic role, gives added strength to economic sanctions it imposes upon certain foreign governments (including North Korea and Iran). European and Asian businesses understand that doing business with North Korea may come with prohibitively high costs in terms of the restrictions they may face when doing business with the United States. The U.S. dollar remains – at least for now – the dominant currency in international markets, which means maintaining access to U.S. financial institutions is absolutely essential for their own ability to function. Running afoul of U.S. sanctions on governments like those in North Korea and Iran is too-high-a-price to pay for most foreign businesses to risk on a small market like that in North Korea.
How well military deployments and economic sanctions have worked is a matter of perspective. Obviously, as noted, there has not been another major war on the Korean Peninsula since the 1953 armistice. That in itself is a huge accomplishment. Deterring the smaller-scale attacks, like those by North Korean special forces, shelling of South Korean islands by North Korean artillery units, the sinking of the South’s naval vessel, and all the others has proven immeasurably difficult. Those attacks, however, have not been permitted by the United States to provoke another large-scale war. Economic sanctions have just as certainly restricted North Korea’s ability to develop its economy, which would enable it to increase its already formidable military capabilities. Most importantly, sanctions have not proven successful at convincing North Korea to discontinue its programs to develop nuclear weapons. Sanctions have made it more difficult for North Korea to purchase the technology that would facilitate its development of advanced nuclear weaponry, but have not prevented it from developing crude nuclear bombs. And, the North’s ability to successfully arm long-range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads hangs in the balance. Furthermore, the North’s only economic policies are its own worst enemy. North Korea’s human rights record is among the worst in the world, with hundreds of thousands having died of malnutrition because of the regime’s brutal and unbelievably autocratic domestic policies. U.S. and South Korean governments have periodically loosened sanctions for the purpose of aiding the North’s population, but the North’s iron-grip on the distribution of that aid, and its inhumane policies, have blunted the impact of all such aid programs. Because of North Korea’s record at provoking the international arena, including its much larger neighbor to the north, China, and its refusal to abide by the most basic standards of human decency, economic sanctions remain, along with the military deployments that preserve stability on the peninsula, the most viable tool in the American arsenal.
A final word should be said about the cyberwarfare being waged between North Korea and the United States, South Korea and Japan. The recent hacking of Sony Corporation's internal communications system may or may not have been the responsibility of North Korea -- and recent information suggests North Korea may not have been behind this particular attack. What is certain, however, is that Pyongyang's willingness and ability to conduct cyberwarfare and cyberespionage is considerable, and must be confronted. Because the North Korean regime is so unpredictable and insular, however, retaliatory steps have to be well-thought-out. The U.S. response to money laundering by North Korea, and the response to North Korea's practice of producing large numbers of counterfeit U.S. $100 bills, triggered an unforeseen response by Pyongyang that temporarily derailed a carefully-negotiated agreement restricting North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.