Regime Change in North Korea: Reagan's Cold War Lessons

by PETER HUESSY August 29, 2017

Can we learn lessons from winning the Cold War that are relevant to the crises of today, particularly the nuclear dangers in North Korea?

Yes, we can and here is why.

When President Reagan was elected in November 1980, the conventional wisdom was he would be prone to use military force unnecessarily, and a danger to the decade of détente and peaceful coexistence fostered by first President Richard Nixon and continued through President James Carter. The idea that the United States would "win" the Cold War and end the Soviet empire was widely considered a pipedream. So, too, today, the idea of a denuclearized Korean peninsula is more and more considered unlikely. In fact, one Korean "expert" recently claimed the North Korean leader was indeed looking for "peaceful coexistence" with the United States!

Reagan rejected "peaceful coexistence". As part of that strategy, and to clearly define how the administration saw the Soviet Union, the President called the Soviet Union "the evil empire" in a 1982 speech to the British Commons. The Harvard Crimson called it "irresponsible rhetoric," while the Washington Post's Helen Thomas labeled Reagan's speech a "bellicose speech" delivered by a recklessly "belligerent American President."

Reagan repeated these remarks in early 1983 to a religious organization and this compelled Richard Cohen, also of the Washington Post, to ask: "Question: What does Ronald Reagan have in common with my grandmother? Answer: They are both religious bigots." Historian Henry Steele Commager chimed in, "It was the worst presidential speech in American history, and I've read them all."

Another indictment came from The New Republic, in a "sarcastic editorial" titled Reverend Reagan. "He is not in the White House to save our souls," the editors objected, "but to protect our bodies; not to do God's will, but the people's."

Later that same year while revving up to run for the nomination to run against Reagan, Senator Alan Cranston characterized President Reagan's approach to foreign policy as ''trigger-happy and reckless".

Not known at the time was the reaction in the Soviet Gulag. We learned later, while imprisoned in a gulag labor camp, Natan Sharansky's "heart swelled" when he heard the news of Reagan's address. In Peggy Noonan's book "When Character Was King," Sharansky remembers, "There was fear in the West to deal with the Soviet Union," but "Reagan was one who understood the Soviet Union is [an] evil empire and we could change it."

Pressure from the U.S. government led to Sharansky's release, and when the Soviet dissenter was subsequently invited to the White House, he had high praise for America's leader: "I told him [Reagan] that his speech about the ‘evil empire' was a great encourager. An American leader was calling a spade a spade-he understood the nature of the Soviet Union."

Duncan Currie wrote about this February 11, 2002, explaining that both in language and action, "Reagan would not remain complacent in the face of tangible danger; passive co-existence with a tyrannical enemy wasn't an acceptable option."

Even some Russians sided with our President. Arkady Murashev, Moscow police chief and a leader of Democratic Russia, who was close to Russian president Boris Yeltsin, told the Washington Post's David Remnick: "He [Reagan] called us the 'Evil Empire.' So why did you in the West laugh at him? It's true!"

Reagan himself said the phrase was well thought out: "Although a lot of liberal pundits jumped on my speech at Orlando and said it showed I was a rhetorical hip-shooter who was recklessly and unconsciously provoking the Soviets into war, I made the 'Evil Empire' speech and others like it with malice aforethought."

Are there lessons in Reagan's approach to the former Soviet Union that can help us with a troubled world today?

I believe the answer to that is a qualified yes.

Just as the current administration has sought to consider diplomacy to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, so did the Reagan administration discuss INF and Strategic Nuclear issues with the Kremlin. But we won't freeze the North Korean nukes in place as some have pushed for, any more than Reagan was going to accept the nuclear freeze proposal of the Soviets in 1981. And diplomacy has its limits especially given the history of the North Korean refusal to abide by the serial agreements Pyongyang has made on nuclear issues.

Reagan decontrolled oil prices and opposed the new Russian gas pipelines into Europe-both positions that cost the Soviets billions, similar to "sanctions" we have placed on North Korea and China now. While sanctions have been approved by the United Nations, a step in the right direction, they remain inadequate. The sanctions against China are to test how serious does China take the North Korean nuclear capability or is in in fact wholly complicit in its development?

Like Reagan's strategic modernization and conventional force buildup was necessary to maintain deterrence, there is a consensus to modernize our conventional forces, missile defenses and our nuclear deterrent. Thankfully, so far, the siren songs of appeasement that keep insisting-as they did under Reagan-that it is America that is leading some arms race and upsetting the strategic balance, are not winning the debate. And the current deployment of THAAD in South Korea and other missile defenses in the region and a planned significant enhancement of missile defenses for our homeland will go forward.

The goal of the Reagan administration was an end to the Soviet empire. Similarly, the goal of the administration, shared with the Republic of Korea President Moon Jae-in, is that whatever regime there is in North Korea must be a regime without nuclear weapons.

This is a different than the stance of some previous administration officials that appear to have accepted North Korea as a permanent nuclear power. These officials assume deterring a country that has an arsenal of dozens of nuclear weapons (North Korea) will be no more difficult than deterring the Soviets or the Chinese both of which have many hundreds and thousands of nuclear warheads respectively.

With the new evidence that Russia has provided rocket motors to the North while Chinese banks have provided the capital to illicitly purchase rockets and nuclear technology, perhaps critics of the current approach will drop the fiction that North Korea is the aggrieved party, simply defending itself from America's "hostile policy".

As Reagan emphasized, he would not remain complacent in the face of tangible danger. He warned, passive co-existence with a tyrannical enemy wasn't an acceptable option.

That is the position we are in with respect to North Korea. We can negotiate a plan for denuclearization of the peninsula. That's diplomacy.

We can defend ourselves and our allies with robust missile defenses, EMP infrastructure protection and strong nuclear and conventional forces. That's deterrence.

If attacked we can shoot down incoming warheads with missile defenses. That's defeat.

Or we may determine that these options will not last and instead, using financial, economic, diplomatic and coercive military capabilities, and with our allies, work to end the nuclear program in North Korea.

And that will require regime change, from within, but why is that surprising?

Such a strategy requires understanding the North Korean nuclear program is simply one part of an axis strategy including China-Russia-North Korea and Pakistan. The North Korean nuclear program is a coercive axis tool to seek to split the US-ROK alliance, secure the withdrawal of American forces from Korea, eventually end American power in the Pacific, and establish what Putin described years ago as the "Rule of the Gun" in world affairs.

To be clear, it is not as if the North is seeking to out of the blue launch a conventional rocket attack on the United States. It is a two-fold danger: they could launch from a freighter or submarine a surreptitious and deadly EMP attack, or over time, cause such turmoil on the Korean peninsula as to precipitate a withdrawal of U.S. forces as the far right and far left have proposed.

Why do we know this? North Korea has repeatedly said only a U.S. withdrawal from the Republic of Korea, an end to the U.S. presence in Guam and elimination of the U.S. ability to strike the DPRK with nuclear weapons would suffice to secure a denuclearized North Korea.

And as the EMP Commission has warned us, North Korea has help from the Russians in developing EMP weapons.

Thus, only if we have a clear vision of what North Korea is about, can we adopt a strategy which like President Reagan, successfully ended a most violent and evil empire, and "won the Cold War". Today, we have the challenge of ending one of the most horrible and dangerous regimes in the world today.

Peter R. Huessy is President of Geostrategic Analysis and a guest lecturer at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was formerly Senior Fellow in National Security at the American Foreign Policy Council.


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