The Gang Solves The North Korea Situation

Another ‘Good Idea’ on the Road To Catastrophe

CSIS recently published what it believes is a ‘proactive, comprehensive, and productive’ strategy toward North Korea. Sadly, it is none of these things. Rather it is ignorant of the motivations of the regime and its political situation, unrealistic about the conditions it can bring about, and in the end likely to force the very outcome it supposedly seeks to avoid. It is merely another example of the widespread naiveté and ignorance about North Korea that has and will continue to characterized U.S. policy toward the nation.

The plan essentially it argues that North Korea can be bought out of its belligerence and nuclear ambitions through economic bribery. The suggestion would be laughable if ideas like this weren’t taken seriously by policymakers.

The key aspects of the effort are as follow:

  • “The center-piece of the strategy is a Mini-Marshall Plan prepared and executed in coordination with US allied partners Japan and South Korea, to assist North Korea in developing a self-sustaining economy.”
  • “The project will initially be launched by the coalition of three allied nations — US, Japan, ROK — working in close coordination under US leadership…After the coalition of three are in complete agreement with all aspects of the Strategy including its implementation, China will be given an open ended invitation to join the Coalition.
  • “A security guarantee for North Korea — Once North Korea unequivocally agrees to cooperate in the implementation of the economic development Strategy, the Coalition will issue a guarantee of North Korea’s security from unprovoked aggression across its borders.”
  • “Provocative military actions by North Korea will not be tolerated and will be dealt with firmly and decisively.”

Before getting into the specifics, let’s first understand the nature of the Kim regime itself, as this is the step the authors of this strategy clearly left out.

For this we turn to B.R. Meyers, speaking in 2007, worth quoting in full:

“This country really has nothing else with which to inspire its people with pride than shows of military or nuclear strength…We now know pretty well who the next leader is going to be. It’s going to be one of Kim Jong-il’s sons called Kim Jong-un…but it’s not really important who the guy is, the important thing is what kind of leader he is already being celebrated as. My hope was that this new leader was going to be presented as kind of a ‘New Leader,’ maybe an economy first kind of leader. That isn’t happening. He’s being presented as a young general and added to that North Korean has enshrined the ‘Military First’ principle in constitution, it has deleted the word communism from the constitution as well. So, this regime is looking at this military first paradigm for the long haul, in other words. So, it’s not really relevant whether the next leader is Kim Jon-nam, or whether it’s Kim Jong-chul, or whether it’s Kim Jong-un, or whether it’s Kim Jong-Il’s brother in law, Jang Song-thaek, because whoever takes over is going to be faced with this same quandary really, which is, ‘How do we go from being a military first country to, say, an economy first country without losing all reason to exist as a separate state?

And this is why it is so unrealistic for us to expect them to trade military strength for a mere aid deal. Let’s say we increase their standard of living by 20% over the next five years, which would be an awful lot. That would not help Kim Jong-il politically because North Korea would still be hopelessly behind South Korea in economic aspects and therefore North Korea would have no reason to exist as a separate Korean state. All that it has now, its only source of legitimacy, is the claim that it alone is standing up to the Yankee enemy, the race enemy.

So to people who are optimistic about the six-party talks or the bi-lateral talks, or whichever talks are supposed to take place, I ask the question, ‘Where does North Korea go if it disarms? What does it do with itself? How does it justify its existence?’ And none of the optimists whom I’ve talked to have been able to give me an answer. They may not consider this a big problem but we can be pretty sure Kim Jong-il realizes just how big a problem it is. And this is why I’m so pessimistic about the prospects for arms talks, because you can talk a regime into doing a lot of things but one thing you can’t make it do is commit political suicide and this is where the left wing, and the right wing, and the center in America are all wrong about North Korea. The left wing is wrong because you cannot bribe or sweet talk a country into committing political suicide. The right wing is wrong because you can’t bully it into doing that either. The center is wrong for thinking you can get the Chinese to persuade them to do it.

So what is the way out? I’m not really sure myself. I think, if I were to propose a way out it would be for us to shift our diplomatic energy and resources from this very fruitless negotiation process which really just buys time for Kim Jong-il’s nuclear program, to the Chinese not in order to persuade the Chinese to work on the North Koreans, but to persuade the Chinese to allow North Korea to collapse. Now that wouldn’t be an easy job. I think it would be quite a hard sell because a) the Chinese don’t want American troops standing on the Yalu River and b) they don’t want to lose all those really favorable economic deals that they’ve concluded with the North Koreans whereby they extract North Korea’s minerals at very good prices. But the example of German unification gives us some ideas. One of the things we said to Gorbachev to get him to sign off on German unification was we promised not to station American troops east of the Elbe. Perhaps a promise not to station American troops north of the Han River might bring us something with the Chinese, I don’t know, but the Chinese are rational people and as difficult as it might be to talk to them about North Korea at least there is some prospect of success, which is more than can be said for what we’re doing right now, which is as I said, trying to get North Korea to commit political suicide.”

Not understanding this, the CSIS product is flawed to the core.

But the problems with it go on. The supposed strategy simply glosses over the fact that China will not allow such direct and coordinated meddling in its sphere of influence by the ROK, Japan and the U.S., especially not to its own detriment. The problem is acknowledged by the authors but they simply presume the benefits of their strategy will win over The Middle Kingdom. This is fantasy. Even the likelihood of the ROK and Japan committing to a course of action where they will likely bear the brunt of the consequences of confrontation is wishful thinking. Current posture in South Korea, despite U.S. rhetoric, is business as usual. The impetus for this kind of intervention simply isn’t present.

Further, if we wanted to draw a red line on North Korean nuclear weapons, we missed the boat by over a decade. Let us also remember, only one nation, aligned with the world greatest superpower, has ever given up its nuclear arms voluntarily (and its reasons were more nefarious than idealistic). Countries seek nuclear arsenals to prevent nuclear weapons from being used against them and to prevent nuclear armed powers from being able to coerce them. For a nation that views the U.S. as its sworn enemy, corruptor of its brothers and sisters, and ‘the other’ against which it props its regime up, disarming in the face of that enemy, and then outsourcing its security to that enemy is utterly nonsensical. The prestige the DPRK earns from opposing and ‘standing up to’ the U.S. is more valuable to the regime’s survival than any amount of charity.

And threats against provocation only validate the concerns North Korea has over U.S. aggression, provide it with the attention and standing it deserves, strengthen its narrative, and further constrain its responses to attack toward violent reprisal.

Despite the propensity to describe them as such, North Korean behavior, rhetoric and policy are not irrational. As Andrei Lanko has emphasized,

“Everyone loves thinking of North Korea as crazy … Tales of North Korean lunacy are never far from the front pages … The problem is it’s not just the media that delights in depicting Pyongyang and Kim Jong Un, as irrational — U.S. policymakers indulge in the same behavior … As a guide for understanding North Korea, this analysis is just plain wrong. As a guide for crafting policy toward Pyongyang, it may be catastrophic. North Korea’s system might look bizarre to us from the outside, but the Kims are the ultimate political survivors, hard-edged rationalists whose actions have always had a clear purpose: keeping the family in power.”

Mark Bowden eloquently echoes this observation,

“Although in late April Trump called Kim ‘a madman with nuclear weapons,’ perhaps the most reassuring thing about pursuing the acceptance option is that Kim appears to be neither suicidal nor crazy. In the five and a half years since assuming power at age 27, he has acted with brutal efficiency to consolidate that power; the assassination of his half brother is only the most recent example. As tyrants go, he’s shown appalling natural ability. For a man who occupies a position both powerful and perilous, his moves have been nothing if not deliberate and even cruelly rational. And as the latest head of a family that has ruled for three generations, one whose primary purpose has been to survive, as a young man with a lifetime of wealth and power before him, how likely is he to wake up one morning and set fire to his world?”

The actual threat from North Korea is insignificant. It can’ reach the U.S. with current systems and even when it theoretically can range the west coast, its probability of failure will still be so great as to make the threat negligible. The country will collapse long before it attains the capability poses a serious direct threat to the U.S.

But even if it could pose such a direct threat (and even though it does to the ROK and has for 60 years), any attempt at such an act would be suicide and the regime knows this. North Korea wants war even less than South Korea, because it knows it cannot win, and such a war would be suicide for the regime. Its acts of aggression are constrained — the nation only does what it knows it can get away with, no more, no less. But if it is attacked, the regime loses all legitimacy if it does not defend itself.

The best course of action would be to simply ignore North Korea and prepare for its eventual collapse — which will require close cooperation with China.

Sadly, however, this appears not to be the path we are on. The unfortunate truth is that we actually are closer to war and nuclear calamity with North Korea than in the past, not because North Korea is acting any differently (it’s not), but because U.S. bellicosity is bringing us closer than ever to engaging in a course of action that will force North Korea to respond in the only manner it will have left. The real danger from North Korea is in it desperately lashing out at its attackers in its death throes. And while the United States is in no real danger of nuclear attack…U.S. forces stationed in Korea, the nation of Japan, and the Republic of Korea certainly are if the U.S. continues to indulge North Korean ego by treating them as a bear-peer, and giving North Korean threats more credence than they deserve. Policymakers would do well to remember this.