Most Americans think North Korea is a crazy place, led by a crazy man bent on global destruction. This view, of course, is almost completely wrong and explains in part why the current public discussion about what to do with a nuclear North Korea is so unsatisfying. Far from crazy, Kim Jong Un has been methodical and careful enough in advancing his nuclear and missile programs to suggest that he is deterred by America’s overwhelming military capabilities, and at the very least is not eager to spark a military conflict—at least not yet.
But what does Kim think of us? If we are going to continue to rely, as we have for decades, on deterrence to prevent a major conflict on the Korean Peninsula, it helps to know both a little about who we are trying to deter and what our deterrence partner thinks about America. As a senior director in the Obama White House charged with coordinating nonproliferation policy, I thought about this question a lot as we tried to ensure our actions and words intended to influence North Korea would send the right deterrent and diplomatic messages to Pyongyang.
After almost 30 years of efforts to prevent a nuclear North Korea, we have demonstrated some patterns; patterns that Kim relies on to guide his decision-making, just as we have come to rely on his patterns to inform ours. We began working to prevent a nuclear North Korea in the late 1980s, and since then five America presidents have tried without final success to achieve this goal. And, to be blunt, the picture these patterns paint is pretty disappointing. Here are a few key lessons we have to assume Kim lives by based on what we have said and done over the last three decades:
First, America wants a deal. The United States says it is unacceptable for us to have a nuclear weapon, but they seem to be accepting it. We are still here. After we were caught having lied about nuclear material production in the early 1990s, Washington imposed some sanctions, but then they cut a deal. After we cheated on that deal, America imposed some sanctions but came back in 2005 and again tried to cut a deal. After we tested nuclear weapons in 2006, America imposed some more sanctions, but still offered to talk. Even during the Obama years, America said they’d talk as long as we agreed it was about denuclearization. So, America wants a deal, and all we have to do is wait them out until we can get one we like. Our negotiating leverage goes up every day.
Second, America says our isolation is getting worse, but more and more money keeps coming in. China keeps buying coal, our workers keep going to Africa and Asia and sending money home, our arms sales in Africa and elsewhere are bringing in big money. Yes, sanctions may hurt us here and there, but we are in much better shape than we were just a decade ago. So why stop now? China may have to approve some new sanctions now and again, but we have enough deals under the table to make it work.
Third, America talks about military options, but they are not going to start a war with us. Not on purpose anyway. If they did not attack us when we didn’t have nuclear weapons and missile that could reach them, they are not going to do it now. The world’s largest economy is not going to risk it all to destroy little ol’ us. And South Koreans are rich. They won’t let the U.S. attack if it means their destruction. If we just keep pushing ahead step by step, we can continue to perfect our weapon systems and we can then start to think about that deal they seem to want so badly.
Fourth, America is losing ground in the region. They can talk about a pivot to Asia all they want, but as time goes on, China gets stronger and South Korea and Japan are going to have to decide which side they are on. China is not going anywhere, and neither are we. Even if the long-term trend takes decades, we have time. China has made clear our collapse is a bigger concern than our provocations. We are only getting stronger as America loses ground to China and their alliances show more and more stress. If we can help that process along, so much the better.
Lastly, if we give up our nuclear weapons we have nothing left. America cut a deal with Muammar al-Qaddafi to give up his weapons, and look at Libya now. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein actually stopped developing weapons, and they regime-changed him. With nuclear weapons, I control my destiny. Without them, I am toast.
Do we know Kim believes these things? No. I am guessing, albeit based on decades of experience watching the North Korean regime and worrying about its nuclear program. No high-ranking American has ever had a sustained conversation with North Korea’s leader. And between us, I am not taking Dennis Rodman’s word for anything. So perhaps Kim is cowering in his palace? Maybe he is just waiting for the right day to announce a forceful reunification with South Korea and bet that we don’t do anything to interfere. It would be good to find out. And that, as much as almost anything besides preventing miscommunication and miscalculation leading to war, seems as good reason as any to talk to the North sooner rather than later.
Kim has learned plenty from us in his short life, and probably absorbed plenty of advice from his late father. He is likely to view Donald Trump much like his predecessors—as a president who doesn’t like North Korea’s nuclear capabilities but with few realistic options for stopping it. Maybe this new one talks louder, and might take more risks, but with a new, less pliable government in South Korea, the current trajectory looks a whole lot like the past. It’s too late to change these lessons, even if we were trying to do so. War with North Korea would be horrific. No sane person would provoke it. And despite the conventional view, Kim is not crazy. He actually seems to have read us pretty well, perhaps better than the current government realizes.