North Korea's now-confirmed successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile Tuesday may seem like just another in a string of provocative moves by Kim Jung Un's regime. But because this latest test now brings the possibility that North Korea could reach Alaska or even some major cities on the U.S. West Coast, the chances for continued diplomatic patience are severely reduced.
In other words, the time for talk is over and now the "to do list" for three major players in this developing crisis has become clearer, if not easier, to execute. The clear goal now is regime change, and regime change by either peaceful or at least much less lethal means. The three players are the United States, China, and a group of prominent North Korean exiles. Here's how the actions of each group can bring about an acceptable outcome without excessive chaos.
The U.S. "hammer"
Contrary to the usual scenarios, the United States may have the easiest job to do in all of this—providing the muscle. To keep the pressure on all the other players, the Trump administration needs to continue proving it's prepared for a military action to bring down the regime in Pyongyang. It did that Tuesday with joint military exercises with South Korea that were initiated just hours after the North Korean launch, but more needs to be done to convince the region of American resolve.
Experts at the military and geopolitical strategic publisher Stratfor have long analyzed what an attack by U.S.-led forces on North Korea would look like. In brief, a move to take out the regime's nuclear facilities would be likely be carried out by American B-2 stealth bombers and F-22 stealth tactical fighters with supporting firepower from cruise missiles fired from surface ships and submarines.
And while President Donald Trump has repeatedly said he doesn't like telegraphing U.S. attacks in advance, in this case a show of force in the form of deploying more of those B-2 bombers, F-22 fighters, and U.S. Navy ships in the region may get an important message across.
For more than 20 years, the one element that's been sorely missing from the diplomatic efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions has been the lack of any real military threat from the U.S. Now that we see that the conciliatory approach cultivated by the Clinton and Obama administrations and the relative indifference of the George W. Bush administration did not work, some American saber rattling is long overdue.
The Chinese purse
That brings us to China and its crucial role in this problem. President Trump has made it clear in recent months to anyone who didn't already know that Chinese economic pressure is the key to forcing North Korea to back off. But as long as the Chinese believe the U.S. will never launch a military strike that truly destabilizes the North Korean nation, Beijing sees sitting on its hands as a pretty good play.
China's main fear is that political chaos after an attack or coup attempt in North Korea will force hundreds of thousands of refugees to stream across the border into the country. Protecting the integrity of the Chinese border has been ingrained in the local culture for centuries as the Great Wall of China would indicate, so this concern is something that transcends the current government in Beijing and even the nation's relatively brief communist history.
So the Chinese need to weigh their pros and cons. It may cost billions to economically punish Pyongyang and supply the cash for a post-Kim Jong Un regime. But will that cost be more than dealing with the financial and social costs of a massive influx of desperate refugees if the U.S. carries out military action.
A new regime's task
And that leads us to what China would have to pay for exactly.
A number of "third way" thinkers on the North Korean threat have been promoting a more peaceful option of supporting a new regime. In the new book Stop North Korea!: A Radical New Approach to the North Korea Standoff, Shepherd Iverson of Inha University in South Korea calls for using a massive multi-billion dollar fund, perhaps as much as $175 billion, to create a carrot approach to helping regime change in North Korea become a reality.
Iverson believes that this so-called "reunifcation investment fund" could be used to pay current political and military elites in North Korea to step aside peacefully. Kim Jong Un and his family would not be paid but would be granted immunity in order to leave the country.
Others think that's a long shot, and insist that North Koreans currently living in exile are the best candidates to take over.
Their main focus is on Kim Han-sol, a surviving grandson of North Korea's previous leader King Jong Il, who is Kim Jong Un's nephew. For those of you having understandable trouble keeping score at home, Han-sol is the son of Kim Jong Un's half-brother Kim Jong Nam, who was assassinated with a nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in February. South Korean officials say North Korea was behind the killing.
The reason Han-sol is considered a viable option by some is because the North Korean people have been brainwashed to believe the family of North Korean founder Kim Il-Sung are their almost divine rulers. Having someone from the family take over from Kim Jong Un is believed to be seen as more legitimate to North Koreans.
No matter who leads this group, the consensus is they're not only going to need money but they'll need to set up some kind of government in exile as soon as possible. A viable alternative like this needs visibility and at least the appearance of getting down to business. That business could include deciding how best to use some of the billions the Chinese and others might be willing to cough up.
And such a plan by some North Korean exiles certainly has a good chance to get bloody as well. China will not only have to pay to set up such a new government, but help it pay for the financial and military costs included with having to oust Kim Jong Un and possibly imprison or at least effectively exile him to another country.
But these remain the most realistic and relatively peaceful approaches left on the table for these three players. Pyongyang's current regime couldn't be clearer in showing that it is beyond reachable by reasonable negotiations. And nobody really wants a bloody attack that could lead to more death and destruction in the long run.
None of the above tasks can work in a vacuum. The U.S. must first prove to everyone that it's serious about taking military action. China must prove it's serious about paying to avoid that action. And North Korean exiles must prove they're worth that Chinese money.
The Trump administration is already well on its way to completing its part of the deal. It's time for the other players to get moving too.
Correction: An earlier version of this article erred when it said a new book, Stop North Korea!: A Radical New Approach to the North Korea Standoff, by Prof. Shepherd Iverson of Inha University, said China would need to supply $175 billion in funds that would go towards removing the current North Korean regime of Kim Jong Un. In fact, the prof. wrote that the fund would be raised from varied sources. The book also does not call for Kim Jong Un to be exiled or imprisoned, but that he and his family would be given immunity to step away from power. Lastly, Iverson does not propose that a "new regime should and could be led by current military leaders in North Korea" but argues for complete political reunification with the South.The article also misidentified the location of Inha University. It is in Incheon, South Korea, not Seoul.
Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.
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