In Washington, there is a conventional wisdom on North Korea that spans both parties and much of elite opinion. It goes roughly like this: North Korea is the world’s most bizarre country, run by a crackpot dictator with a strange haircut. He is unpredictable and irrational and cannot be negotiated with. Eventually this weird and cruel regime will collapse. Meanwhile, the only solution is more and more pressure. But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong?
The North Korean regime has survived for almost seven decades, preserving not just its basic form of government but also its family dynasty, father to son to grandson. It has persisted through the fall of the Soviet Union and its communist satellites, the Orange Revolution, the Arab Spring and the demise of other Asian dictatorships, from South Korea to Taiwan to Indonesia.
The Kim dynasty has been able to achieve striking success in its primary objective — survival. Of course, this is because it rules in a brutal and oppressive fashion, but so did many other regimes, such as Romania, Syria and Burma. But somehow North Korea has maintained its system.
Kim Jong Un is a young man but has been highly effective at preserving his authority. He has secured the support of the military and sidelined or killed anyone who threatened his grip on power — including his uncle and, allegedly, his half brother.
Look at the world from North Korea’s perspective. The regime saw the collapse of the Soviet empire and an even more unsettling transformation in China, which went from being a fiery ideological soul mate to a pragmatic trading state that has eagerly integrated into world markets. These days, Beijing seems to view Pyongyang as a nuisance, and China now oftenvotes to condemn and place sanctions against North Korea at the United Nations.
And the world’s most powerful country has made clear that North Korea is destined for the ash heap of history. After 9/11, when the United States was attacked by Islamist terrorists emanating from the Middle East, President George W. Bush announced that the United States would no longer tolerate an “axis of evil” comprising Iraq, Iran — and North Korea. It invaded Iraq. Current U.S. policy toward Iran, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently said, is to “work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.” And regarding North Korea, President Trump wants China to “end this nonsense once and for all,” which again can only mean getting rid of the Kim government in some way.
So, the North Korean regime has tried to buy insurance. And in the realm of international affairs, the best insurance is having a nuclear capacity. Pyongyang knows that it has a large-enough army and the Korean theater of war is so small and dense that a conventional war would be unthinkable, producing hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of refugees pouring into China and South Korea. North Korea has accurately calculated that China and South Korea are more terrified of the chaos that would follow its collapse than of its nuclear arsenal.
Perhaps the right way to look at North Korea is as a smart, rational, calculating government that is functioning shrewdly given its priority of regime survival. More pressure only strengthens its resolve to buy even more insurance. How to handle it under these circumstances?
The first way to break the logjam in U.S. policy would be to persuade China to put real pressure on its ally. That won’t happen by serving President Xi Jinping chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago. Beijing faces an understandable nightmare — under sanctions and pressure, North Korea collapses and the newly unified country becomes a giant version of South Korea, with a defense treaty with Washington, nearly 30,000 American troops and possibly dozens of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons — all on China’s border.
Washington will have to promise Beijing now that in the event of unification, it would withdraw its troops, change the nature of its treaty relationship with the new Korea and, working with China, eliminate Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
But pressure will work only if there is also some reason for North Korea to make concessions. Pyongyang has indicated in the past that it seeks a formal end to the Korean War (Washington signed only an armistice in 1953), a recognition of the regime and the lifting of sanctions. Obviously none of this should be offered right now, but there is no harm in talking to Pyongyang and searching for ways to trade some of these concessions for the complete eradication of the nuclear program.
It’s a bitter pill for Washington to swallow, but the alternative is to hope that China will act against its interests and crush its ally, or that North Korea will finally collapse. But hope is not a strategy.