Short of ensuring its survival, the dictatorship of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un with its incessant provocations could be making regime change appealing once again.
All Regime Change Is Not Created Equal
Regime change from the outside is almost always wrong.
First, because it is morally ambiguous. The argument that a certain power could be subvert and replace the government regimes of other countries simply because of the alleged moral superiority of its values is always susceptible to the counterargument about the sovereign rights of the targeted nation.
This moral ambiguity goes for regime change brought about by the liberal democratic West (the US, but also Britain, France, NATO, the EU, you name it) which could often be presumed to be for the better, and for a good reason.
When regime change from the outside is committed by a brutal dictatorship imposing is own horrors on other nations, that’s not morally ambiguous but outrightly unacceptable and must always be resisted 100%. (For example, when Stalin’s Soviet Union occupied the countries of Eastern Europe during World War II, and then installed there puppet communist dictatorships.)
Second, regime change (from the outside, and by the West) is itself almost always wrong because it has too many unintended consequences, not just “collateral damage”. The newly established regime itself might turn out to be unviable at all, and in addition to all the damage done to the respective nation, propping it up might suck in a horrendous amount of investment (in military power, finances, public image) on part of the “liberator”.
Cases in hand: the one-time pride of the American neocons, the regime change by the US in 2001 in Afghanistan, where America toppled the Taliban (perhaps temporarily, but for at least 16 years, that is), and in 2003 in Iraq where it brought down the regime of Saddam Hussein (to the benefit of US adversary Iran, as it appears).
While the US had a very strong case to go after al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in New York City and Washington, D.C. (unless you happen to believe conspiracy theories that America itself blew up the twin towers and the Pentagon), the US invasion of Iraq by the administration of George W. Bush in 2003 has completely discredited regime change. It had already been a very questionable foreign policy tool for the West.
From the Iraq Invasion to Ukraine’s Euromaidan
The Iraq Invasion was so astonishingly misguided and detrimental to pretty much everyone involved (save for Iran) that it quickly and easily eclipsed some actually positive cases in which the West had brought down dictators in regime change following humanitarian interventions – the most notable example being former Yugoslav / Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic a couple of years after the Kosovo War and NATO air strikes of 1999. Milosevic’s demise made everybody better off, even Serbia (regardless of what Serbian ultra-nationalists, the type that started the wars in Yugoslavia, might tell you).
However, it is unimaginably more important that the Iraq Invasion, in which a brutal, though secular, dictator, Saddam Hussein, was brought down under the false pretext (or wrong intelligence) of possessing weapons of mass destruction, has created a permanent state of fear among non-Western or anti-Western autocrats, either full-fledged, or softcore fear, that they could lose their power, wealth, and even their lives in a similar fashion any moment now.
The Arab Spring revolutions in 2010-2011, which often brought down West-friendly autocrats from Tunisia to Yemen, and the Color Revolutions in the former Soviet space (Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005, plus the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine) have fully convinced autocrats around the world – from Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un – that they should fear Western-aided regime change more than anything.
Of course, in the cases of the Arab Spring Revolutions, the Color Revolutions, and especially the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine (to which Putin reacted by annexing the Crimean Peninsula and causing further trouble) regime change was almost entirely a domestic making.
It resulted primarily from grassroots indignation against the respective regimes, not from CIA conspiracies (regardless of what Russia’s leader and former KGB officer Putin would have you believe), and any support the West might have provided was mostly moral.
In the case of the Arab Spring, the United States, and pretty much everybody, was taken by surprise, as it had had either friendly alliances or good working relations with the toppled dictators (Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak being the most prominent example).
In the case of Ukraine in 2013-2014, the Obama Administration was so uninterested in stirring trouble with Russia in Eastern Europe (remember Obama’s bizarre “reboot” with Moscow in 2011, even after Russia had fought pro-Western Georgia in 2008) that probably the most tangible support it ever lent to the rebellious Ukrainians were the cookies with which Victoria Nuland famously treated the protesters in Kiev.
If the West, the CIA, etc., had orchestrated the Euromaidan Revolution in Kiev in order to hurt Russia, as the Kremlin would tell you, where are the Western supplies of lethal weaponry to the Ukrainian military as it has been fighting a pro-Russian insurgency in Donbass? And why did Western diplomats initially tell Ukraine not to resist the Russian invasion of Crimea? Who would stage a coup in another country, and then not back it up? Why stage it in the first place then?
From Saddam and Gaddafi to Kim Jong-un
The one more notable regime change case in the Arab Spring revolutions which sucked in massive outside (Western) involvement (not counting the stupefying debacle of the Syrian Civil War which is still in progress) was Libya.
As the regime of the truly gruesome dictator Muammar Gaddafi began to prevail against the protesters-turned-insurgents largely thanks to its air force, France intervened, backed by Britain, and as French air power capacity turned out to be insufficient, the United States eventually stepped in, and took over from its NATO allies.
The end result was that Gaddafi was murdered by a mob in the street – probably a justified punishment for his crimes. (Again, unless you believe in conspiracies, in which case the murdered man was his double, and the chief of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya is sipping cocktails in his lavish tent somewhere on this or another planet.)
Beginning with the Iraq Invasion, and ending with the Arab Spring and the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine, autocrats around the world have been strongly convinced, paranoid even, that the West is coming for them.
This more than anything, and not imperial designs, explains Putin’s encroachments against Ukraine with its new pro-democratic and pro-Western regime, as well as his backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
(There is even a hypothesis that Putin hadn’t really planned to come back as Russia’s President for a third term in 2012, but having witnessed the Arab Spring and Gaddafi’s fate, against the backdrop of street protests in Moscow in 2011, he returned to the Presidency, worried that his successor Medvedev wouldn’t be able to withstand Western regime change efforts, real or perceived).
This more than anything explains the adamancy with which North Korea’s regime, under its awkward, Swiss-educated leader Kim Jong-un, “third of his name” in the long-standing communist monarchy in Pyongyang, has been trying to develop a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the US mainland.
How to Make Regime Change Appealing Again: North Korea’s Effort
In doing so, North Korea has been carrying out dozens of ballistic missile tests and several nuclear weapon tests, in themselves constant provocations against established international order and the security of its neighbors, notably top US allies Japan and South Korea.
That’s not all, though. North Korea’s regime has spread terror outside its borders, and beyond its subjects, to civilians abroad.
In February, North Korea killed the estranged half-brother of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-nam, using a deadly chemical weapon, the VX nerve agent, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, putting thousands of others at risk. Kim Jong-nam is the guy who would have been the North Korean dictator – except as the former dictator’s kid, he tried to sneak to Disneyland in Japan
Then there is the case of Otto Warmbier, a US college student from Ohio who was sentenced by North Korea to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a propaganda poster from a hotel in Pyongyang on a tourist trip. After 17 months in “humanitarian” captivity in North Korea, Warmbier was returned to his parents in a vegetative state, apparently having suffered torture, only to die a few days later.
North Korea’s leadership assumes that having nuclear weapons and the capacity to deliver them all the way to the 48 continental US states is a strong enough guarantee against a regime change attempt by the United States.
While the mere possession of nuclear weapons and the capacity to deliver them might be a strong guarantee for the survival of a rogue state’s regime, it would have been much smarter for the North Korean leadership to lay low, and avoid explicit and excessive demonstrations and provocations – exactly the type that it has been committing.
The cost of regime change is high enough for the US or other relevant actors to consider, and if they had seen in the face of North Korea a dictatorship which is more or less willing to abide by international norms, they would have hardly wanted to deal with it at all.
North Korea’s regime could have been developing missiles and nuclear weapons much more quietly – and the possibility of striking Seoul or Tokyo is a sufficient threat in itself.
However, the push for developing a nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – which North Korea just claimed to have tested – in order to threaten the US mainland might come as too much for America to swallow.
Washington might end up being willing to defy North Korea’s main geopolitical shield – the fact of its close proximity to China – and go for a preemptive strike which itself could lead up to regime change. (The question of whether China really stands to lose from regime change in North Korea is an interesting, though an easy one to answer.)
Thus, the very quest for survival of North Korea’s dictatorship of Kim Jong-un through the development of a fearsome arsenal of WMDs coupled with taking its domestic terror to civilians abroad could result in the regime’s demise.
Who’s Going to Miss Kim Jong-un?
US could have targeted North Korea’s regime ever since the bizarre 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech of George W. Bush, and if Kim Jong-un’s clique had kept a low profile, it would have had much greater chances of continuing to muddle through.
All in all, regime change (caused from the outside, by the West) is only right when the respective country had been waging a total war on you, and you have defeated it – such as Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan.
Regime change has also proven beneficial to everyone (except the deposed dictator and their clique) in at least a few other cases such as the toppling of Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia.
Nobody is going to miss Kim Jong-un with his creepy grin, not even China and Russia. And North Korea is not Iraq or Afghanistan: it is ethnically and religiously homogenous, there is no tribal infighting, and there is a prosperous and democratic South Korea that can take over and help fix it up (over the course of a few decades, if West Germany’s experience with East Germany is any indicator).
All these factors might make North Korea a ripe candidate for an actually successful regime change attempt in the eyes of certain Western strategists.
Vastly discredited after the Iraq Invasion and making autocrats around the world paranoid after the revolutions in the Arab World and Ukraine, the notion of Western-induced regime change could make a comeback thanks to North Korea’s constant provocations, especially with a man as unpredictable as Donald Trump in the White House.
Global Political Editor