The United States should engage the North in dialogue and, in exchange for verifiable steps toward arms control and sustained cooperation, gradually back away from war games, economic sanctions and bellicose rhetoric, writes Walter Hatch in an Op-Ed.
AMERICANS obsessively fret about Kim Jong Un, the bizarrely coifed dictator of North Korea who executed his uncle, poisoned his half brother, and threatens nuclear war against the U.S. and its allies. But here’s the deal: While Kim is clearly cruel, he is not crazy.
The regime in Pyongyang is actually quite rational and is driven toward one simple goal: survival. It intends to use its small nuclear stockpile to deter U.S. aggression and stay alive. Can we honestly blame them?
North Korea has a practical reason to view its fledgling nuclear program as a critically needed resource. The United States, the global superpower, has repeatedly vilified the brutal, Stalinist regime and just launched another joint military exercise designed to intimidate it. Our president has even resorted to Kim-like threats of “fire and fury” against Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Un also has learned the lesson of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya, where the U.S. invaded and toppled hostile regimes without nuclear weapons. Given these precedents, one might even argue that Kim would be crazy to relinquish the dozen or so nuclear warheads currently in his nation’s possession.
North Korea also has an ethical reason to insist on maintaining its nukes. It is unfair to expect weaker states to forego that capability when stronger states like the U.S. are failing to significantly reduce their own stockpiles. This is nuclear apartheid — a system in which the powerful hoard resources and deprive others of equal access.
I can hear you squirming: “But North Korea is different; it is a rogue state.” Yes, of course it is. Pyongyang has engaged in all kinds of bad behavior — from blowing up passenger airplanes to kidnapping civilians in nearby countries. (The United States, of course, has engaged in bad behavior, too.) What we often forget is that North Korea is also a cornered state, one without any real allies in the world. This is largely a function of juche, the complex policy of “self-reliance” promulgated by Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), during the Sino-Soviet rupture that emerged in the 1960s. So yes, the Kim dynasty is, in part, responsible for its own predicament.
But Washington could help Pyongyang feel less cornered, less threatened, by joining forces with the government of South Korea and engaging the North in dialogue. In exchange for verifiable steps toward arms control and sustained cooperation, the United States could gradually back away from war games, economic sanctions and bellicose rhetoric. It could even dangle the prospect of a nonaggression pact, which the DPRK has coveted more than anything else for decades.
Leaning on China is unlikely to do anything more than upset Beijing. Although it too is frustrated with Pyongyang’s truculent behavior, it will not take any action that would destabilize the regime. China’s worst fear is a unified Korea, militarily aligned with the United States, on its border.
The best strategy is to push for an open North Korea, one in which its 25 million citizens gradually come to realize that, compared to their counterparts south of the border, they are tragically poor and repressed. This information war will be fought with cellphones, flash drives, soap operas and movies, and it will require patience.
In the meantime, the U.S. will have to learn to live with a nuclear DPRK, just as it has learned to live with other nuclear-armed states. This is not the end of the world. With its military strength and with smarter diplomacy, the U.S. will be able to deter North Korea — just as any rational state deters any other rational state that hopes to survive.