It should come as no surprise that the North Korean leadership’s ultimate goal is regime survival.
THE world let out a collective sigh of relief earlier this month when a much-anticipated and feared sixth North Korean nuclear test never materialized. But as the dangerous display of geopolitical theater continues to take anxiety-producing twists and turns, the Trump administration ought to spend less time taunting Kim Jong Un and more time getting to “know thy enemy.”
As someone who has clocked scores of hours as a U.S. State Department official across the negotiating table with the North Korean government and who has been on Korea-watch since leaving the Clinton administration in 2001, my great fear is that our current leaders and policymakers are not listening to those who know the North best.
President Donald Trump’s erroneous statement that Korea was once a part of China and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s assertion that a U.S. policy of more pressure, more sanctions and a reliance on China is a fundamental departure in U.S. policy (it’s not; it’s a failed policy from the early 2000s) are the latest examples of just how little those in positions of power understand the two Koreas.
If we are to avoid another catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula — or a future North Korea capable of firing a nuclear weapon at Seattle, San Francisco or Los Angeles — it is high time the administration starts doing its homework.
A key lesson is asking why the North Korean regime is doing what it is doing. It should come as no surprise that the North Korean leadership’s ultimate goal is regime survival. To accomplish this, it has steadfastly pursued three objectives that are perfectly rational if seen through the lens of the regime’s strategic interests: prevent foreign attack and intimidation; preserve the national myth of the regime’s historic destiny; and improve the country’s desperate living standards for elite segments of the population.
North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program plainly advances the first two objectives — the bomb makes up for its rapidly deteriorating million-man army, and possessing it shows its citizens that the regime is an “elite member” of an exclusive international club.
Less obvious is the role the program plays in the North’s economic thinking. Many forget that during his first public appearance as leader, Kim Jong Un promised his people better times. More nukes means more leverage for North Korea to extract international economic benefits. More nukes also mean Pyongyang has the wherewithal to fend off real or imagined threats, allowing it to devote more resources to improving its ailing economy. This approach is similar to China’s in the 1980s when Beijing turned its focus to economic growth after achieving what it perceived was a sufficient self-defense capability.
If Kim has a similar plan, then North Korea will not be easily swayed to stop testing until it reaches whatever it believes is its magic number of weapons and level of technological sophistication that makes it feel secure. When this happens, we can expect North Korea, from a position of perceived strength, to reach out in earnest to discuss giving up some of its weapons or otherwise limiting its program for payoffs such as sanctions relief and economic aid.
If we understand North Korea’s motivations and its strategic endgame, then we may just be able to step back from the precipice of conflict. Addressing the North’s key concerns — security, international political standing, as well as a way for North Korea to provide economically for its people — is the only chance the West has to deal with the long-persistent North Korea problem that is only going to get worse with time.
In short, we need to use Trump’s declared policy of maximum pressure and leverage, agree on a common strategy with China (which to date has been absent), combine it with the president’s inclination to talk with Kim Jong Un — and hope that Trump has a team capable of seeing North Korea as it truly is and not as a stereotype.
This is the only path to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control and to freeze the North’s nuclear and missile activity, which is already a longshot. Any attempt to “close the deal” informed by “alternative facts” or distorted realities is destined for certain failure. A sixth nuclear test, which could happen at any time, would decrease the odds even more.
North Korea is the land of lousy policy options. But unless we pivot soon, it is only a matter of time before we are faced with the agonizing choice of a North Korea with a small arsenal of nuclear weapons capable of hitting Seattle and other parts of the continental United States — or a devastating war to prevent this from happening.