In this issue we feature two articles on the problem of North Korea, which is topical because of recent talks between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
In neither of these pieces, however, will you find a discussion of how the United States and North Korea might reach an agreement regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons, its ballistic missiles, or any other security matters. Instead, you will find sobering assessments of the limits of diplomacy with North Korea.
The first comes in our interview with Nicholas Eberstadt, who has closely studied the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for several decades. “North Korea doesn’t do ‘Getting to Yes,’” Eberstadt observes. The reason for that, he says, is that the DPRK is deeply rooted in revisionist aspirations.
As Eberstadt sees it, the goal of uniting Korea under its rule is woven into the foundation of the regime. Nuclear weapons give the DPRK its only viable path to achieving that goal today. For North Korea to give up those weapons, and thus give up its seven-decade project of wiping out what it considers to be an illegitimate government in Seoul, would be to call into question the reason for its own existence. Dictatorships don’t normally destabilize themselves deliberately.
We also feature an article by Bruce Klingner, who reviews how the possession of a nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal fits into North Korea’s grand strategy. Among a number of purposes, he observes, the weapons are a tool for coercive diplomacy. The pattern is for North Korea to behave belligerently so as to raise tensions and induce diplomatic concessions. Nuclear weapons can be either the saber that gets rattled or the shield that allows the regime to act with impunity—or both.
The main danger of talks with North Korea is not that they will fail to produce an agreement, but that they will lead to concessions that increase North Korea’s ability to threaten the United States and its allies. To state the obvious, we have underestimated the regime quite a few times in the past.
After World War II, U.S. policymakers wanted to bring American soldiers home and maximize America’s peace dividend. So they decided that North Korea and South Korea could be restrained from attacking each other by pulling American troops out of Korea and giving the South only defensive weapons—no tanks, heavy artillery, or aircraft. American advisors consistently rated the 100,000-man South Korean military capable of repelling an invasion despite facing a Soviet- and Chinese-supplied North Korean force of 200,000 troops armed with hundreds of tanks, artillery pieces, fighters, and bombers.
In a January 1950 speech on American defensive commitments in Asia, Secretary of State Dean Acheson failed even to mention South Korea. Just two weeks later, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin gave North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung provisional approval for invading the South. The DPRK invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, and within six days the United States committed troops to South Korea’s defense. The war would last three more years and cost 36,000 American lives—all because we thought it could be prevented by failing to prepare for it.
In the 1990s, the DPRK was on the ropes economically, but instead of pressing its advantage, South Korea adopted the Sunshine Policy—the theory being that if they were nice to North Korea, North Korea would be nice in return. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung was so invested in the idea of Sunshine that his government secretly gave Pyongyang half a billion dollars merely for agreeing to participate in an inter-Korean summit.
For engineering this meeting, Kim Dae-jung took home the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize. North Korea took the money and plowed it into making weapons-grade enriched uranium.
Between war and a charm campaign, there is a wide range of options for containing North Korea. But, as both of our authors caution, the necessary first step is to see the danger clearly.
Alex Adrianson edits The Insider.
Have a story idea? Want to connect with him?