There are no good alternatives to address the growing crisis in North Korea. A military strike, traditional or nuclear, will lead to devastating consequences for our allies, South Korea and Japan. As soon as we attack North Korea, that country will most certainly start unleashing artillery on South Korea, which experts estimate could lead to 60,000 deaths within the first few hours. If it drops nuclear bombs on Seoul or Tokyo, the death toll would be catastrophic. We would win in the end and possibly destroy North Korea in its entirety. But the cost of this victory is much too large.
Tightening up economic sanctions doesn't threaten our allies, but it is not clear this strategy will work. For one, the Trump administration is having significant difficulty motivating China to withhold fuel and food exports to North Korea. For a variety of reasons, China is just not interested in starving the country, which might result in an internal revolution that could lead to a re-unification of the Koreas in which democratic South Korea rules.
Diplomacy is an avenue, but North Korea rightly fears that the United States and the West generally might seek a regime change just as we did in Iraq and Libya. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has watched autocratic predecessors lose power. So even if we could have diplomatic meetings, what could we offer? A deal that we will not invade if they stop building nuclear weapons and the means to deploy them at long distances? A written commitment? Removing more economic sanctions in exchange for ending their military build-up? A grand diplomatic deal might work, but so far it's hard to conceptualize.
One option that has not been discussed but should be has worked wonders in the past in a very different context: build up the economy of North Korea by giving them money — billions of dollars. Raise the standard of living for average North Koreans. Promise inclusion of North Korea in the G-20; make it the G-21. Treat them as a peer. In short, create a 21st Century Marshall Plan for North Korea. Indeed, make friends with their leader.
"Outrageous," the critics will say. North Korea's political and military leaders do not want to raise the standard of living of their citizens. They do not want to give them access to the Internet. They want to keep them in the dark. Well, it is true that this is what they want now. But what if their country was infused with $50 billion and the string of offers mentioned above? What about $100 billion? (North Korea's GDP is about $28 billion, and their per capita income is about $1,700.) At that point, the leadership would have nothing to hide. Instead, they would celebrate the influx of money and the new-found status and stature of North Korea.
Even so, critics would say that we are now building up the economy of a country that is well armed, thus furthering their capacity to be a strong opponent in a war. The reply to this objection is that the economic build up (which would also be good for American industry and American jobs) would not make that much of a difference in North Korea's ability to carry out massive death and destruction, especially in South Korea and Japan. The question is whether it would remove some of their leadership's fear that the United States is going to seek regime change.
The Marshall Plan, like the Keynesian economics it relies on, performed miracles in the 20th century, building up of Europe after World War II and maintaining a strong resistance against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. It is true that Marshall Plan funding went to our allies, but what unites the situations is a desperate need for economic development. Moreover, we have an economic deal-maker in the White House who just might be able to sell it to North Korea's Supreme Leader. They are both idiosyncratic enough that they might be able to pull off this deal. The only conceivable way North Korea will put a halt to their military build-up is if we transform our entire relationship with them. We need to integrate North Korea into the global community by making them "one of us." The only way to do that is a massive program of economic development that we (and possibly some of our allies) finance.
Economic sanctions and traditional diplomacy have failed to date and will continue to fail. It is time for a creative solution that leverages our economic power and leverages the need the North Koreans have to feel safe in a very unsafe world.
Dave Anderson was a candidate in the 2016 Democratic Primary in Maryland's 8th Congressional District. He is editor of Leveraging: A Political, Economic, and Societal Framework (Springer, 2014). He can be reached at email@example.com.