We Need a Long Game for North Korea

Summer 2018 Insider

We Need a Long Game for North Korea

A Conversation with Nicholas Eberstadt

Aug 13, 2018 14 min read

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held talks in Singapore on June 12. EPN/NEWSCOM

Nicholas Eberstadt’s scholarship has covered many topics, including federal entitlements, employment, opioid abuse, economic development, and the misuse of statistics, as well as North Korea—the topic of our discussion below.

Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research, a member of the Global Leadership Council at the World Economic Forum, and a member of the publications committee of the journal Public Interest. He has served on the President’s Commission on Bioethics. In 2012, he was awarded a Bradley Prize.

He is a founding member of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. His books on North Korea include The End of North Korea (1999), Korea’s Future and the Great Powers (2001), and The North Korean Economy Between Crisis and Catastrophe (2007). 

The Insider: Recently there was a bubble of optimism that talks between the United States and North Korea would happen soon and would lead to a real thawing in the relationship. In your commentaries, you haven’t been optimistic that talks—even if they were to happen—would produce anything positive. Why so?

Nicholas Eberstadt: I don’t know whether high level talks will occur, but something radically transformative would have to occur in Pyongyang to lead to any outcome that serves U.S. security interests. The interests of the North Korean state are diametrically opposed to U.S. security and to the security of U.S. allies in Northeast Asia, especially the security of the South Korean government. From its founding up until let’s say lunchtime today, in fact, the North Korean regime has been categorically committed to wiping the South Korean government off the face of the earth. 

TI: From where does that commitment come?

NE: The North Korean regime is a state with a deep and stable logic. And that logic is the logic of a revisionist state—a state that is fundamentally dissatisfied with the configuration of the international chess board. The North Korean regime, given its own ideology (which today is a form of racial socialism), claims that it is the only legitimate authority to rule the Korean peninsula and what it calls the Korean race, the Korean minjok. It regards the Republic of Korea as a vile, illegitimate, puppet state supported only by foreign bayonets. It sees no room for compromise on its vision that the Korean peninsula deserves to be ruled by an “independent socialist” state in Pyongyang run by the Kim family. 

TI: And that ideology goes back to the end of the Korean War, right? 

NE: Yes, to the ceasefire in the Korean War in 1953. And there were even stirrings of it before that. The North Korean state began as a Soviet satellite, a Stalin-style satellite at the end of World War II, but the North Korean leadership broke free of its Stalinist tetherings in the way that the Eastern European socialist states did not. It not only broke free from its Stalinist tetherings, but it eventually discarded Marxism and Leninism altogether. Even the statues of Marx and Lenin are gone from Kim Il-sung Square. Now Marx and Lenin no longer figure into the constitution or the workers’ party charter. What is extolled instead is what they call “our own style of socialism,” which as I mentioned is racially narrow-cast, focused not on the world as a whole but instead on the Korean people. Of course, the two great geniuses who are credited with this world-shattering doctrine are the late Kim Il-Sung and his son, the late Kim Jong-Il.

North Korea’s only hope of crafting events to its own liking may be to orchestrate a nuclear showdown with the United States on the Korean peninsula. And if the regime voluntarily relinquishes its nuclear quest, it’s easy to see how the leadership might be accused of something like treason.

TI: So does the regime fear that accepting the South Korea government as legitimate and giving up its nuclear and missile programs would undermine its own legitimacy at home?

NE: There are several different problems for them here. The first problem is they have demanded horrendous sacrifices from their subjects for more than 70 years under the claim and with the objective of gathering or reunifying the Korean people. If the North Korean government were to suddenly say, “Well that was then and this is now. Now we’re OK with a Southern state bumping up the demarcation line, that would be just fine with us,” then the question would naturally arise, “Well, then, why are you ruling at all?” So that’s one problem. 

The second problem is that the nuke quest and the quest for long-range ballistic missiles to deliver those nuclear weapons constitute the regime’s only plausible path today to hammering in a reunification on its own terms. After all, North Korea isn’t going to win an economic race with South Korea, and it’s certainly not going to win a popularity contest. Its only hope of crafting events to its own liking may be to orchestrate a nuclear showdown with the United States on the Korean peninsula. And if the regime voluntarily relinquishes its nuclear quest, it’s easy to see how the leadership might be accused of something like treason. 

TI: North Korea is terribly poor, mostly as a result of its own policies. How has the DPRK managed not merely to survive but to finance a nuclear weapons and a ballistic missile program?

NE: A good question. We have to remember that not everybody in North Korea is poor, but the people who are poor are in designated classes where the government is OK with destitution prevailing. The North Korean system operates what is called a songbun system, which is a class stratification where you are trapped for life by the class to which you are assigned. 

I think we can be quite sure that nobody from the upper classes died of starvation during the terrible famine of the 1990s. The North Korean system, in a way, is uniquely qualified to deal with mass poverty, with relegating masses of people to hunger and penury. It’s as qualified as any secular system could be, given its very particular ideology. 

That being said, the North Korean government has really interesting and innovative methods for financing its nuclear weapon and missile quest. And you have to remember these folks to the north of the DMZ are Koreans—distinguished by many of the very same characteristics we associate with Koreans in the South. They are smart. They’re enterprising. They’re motivated. They think things through many steps in advance and they are constantly testing new methods. 

One of the fascinating new methods that the third Kim—Kim Jong Un—has developed is a “simultaneous development” policy (byungjin) which is supposed to promote a certain amount of consumer well-being along with the increase in defense economy. There’s more of what some may call pragmatism in the limited commercial sector today than there was in the past. And that has allowed for a limited increase in consumerism. But the regime demands a bite of the profits, and from this bite of profits, the government has partially financed its nuke and missile program. That is one of the factors which helps to account for the sharp uptick in tempo of nuke testing and missile testing under Kim Jong Un. 

That’s the domestic part of it. The international part has to do with the North Korean-style international finance and trade system, which we might see more or less as globalization for the league of supervillains. Through different sorts of illicit activities, through drugs, through counterfeiting, through cyber theft—and also through WMD proliferation to unsavory states like Iran and Syria, and also to terror organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah—North Korea has financed its defense quest. The final aspect, of course, is the abiding support of the Chinese regime which, at the moment, is North Korea’s largest and practically only visible means of international support nowadays.

2018_Summer_Interview02.jpg STATUE OF KIM IL-SUNG, first Supreme Leader of North Korea, in Pyongyang.

TI: They seem to be good at generating income outside their borders. Are we not enforcing sanctions well or is there no sanctions policy that can shift North Korea’s behavior?

NE: North Korea is a poster child for a successful sanctions campaign. As we know from looking at economic history, coercive economic diplomacy usually fails. But North Korea is an almost uniquely distorted and dependent economy, which means the prospects for successfully choking off resources and forcing the North Korean defense economy into paralysis is much greater than with Iran or with any of the other troublesome states with which the international community must currently contend. 

The weakness of sanctions against North Korea in the recent past have largely been a matter of implementation. Until recently, half of the countries in the United Nations didn’t even bother to submit an implementation report to the UN Security Council on the UNSC sanctions that had already been passed. Some of the states that were submitting implementation reports included  China and the Russian Federation, who shamelessly violated the very sanctions they’d voted for. 

That’s one implementation problem. Another implementation problem is the rather lackadaisical attitude that the United States has had towards using its very powerful “secondary sanctions” tools that accrue to us by dint of possessing the world’s reserve currency. Even though the Trump administration has increased quite significantly the number of entities that have been sanctioned for violating strictures on dealing with North Korea, North Korea is, I think, still only number four on the “most sanctioned” list. So there is, let’s say, plenty of room for improvement in increasing economic penalties and pressures against the DPRK. 

We have to remember, as well, that the North Korean government does not ever wish to be seen as succumbing to outside international pressure.  One of the unknowns in this drama is the size of North Korea’s strategic and currency reserves and how fast Pyongyang is  spending those down. My guess is that, at present, they’re having to spend those down fairly rapidly. Things from the outside will look normal, at least in North Korean terms, until suddenly they don’t. So stronger sanctions and increased economic pressure will bring that breaking point closer to us. 

TI: What role if any should human rights concerns and the humanitarian situation inside North Korea play in U.S. policy?

NE: North Korea has the world’s worst human rights situation. It’s a huge outdoor prison camp. For any open society that cherishes individual rights, it would be imperative to speak out about the nightmare of human rights in North Korea. The North Korean government does everything it can to preclude such discussions and deliberations among international parties. One of the reasons, of course, is that they have Google just like us, and they can google “Nuremburg trials” just as easily as we can. They see human rights as a regime threatening issue, and I’m not sure they’re wrong about that. 

There’s a second aspect to your question which I suppose we would call the humanitarian aspect as opposed to the human rights aspect—humanitarian meaning the dealing with mass distress, famine, pandemics, and the like. The international community had a miserably wrong-headed approach 20 years ago to North Korean famine, when we more or less cut a check to the North Korean government and trusted the North Korean government to use the monies and the resources for the needy and the deserving.  Of course doing so meant that the North Korean system fed the army first and the disfavored classes last. 

It is entirely possible, if we have a successful economic pressure campaign, that the North Korean government will resume its famine policy. If we wish to relieve the distress that the North Korean songbun system will cause them, we have to be prepared to ready an intrusive aid program where we decide and we evaluate humanitarian need. If the North Korean government prevents well-meaning outsiders from saving the lives of its own peoples, that will be on their head. 

summerinterview3SOLDIERS AND civilians walk by propaganda billboards near a train station in Pyongyang on May 3, 2001. credit: CHIEN-MIN CHUNG/REUTERS/NEWSCOM

TI: South Korean policy seems to cycle between phases of a sunshine approach and a harder line on North Korea, and now it is back in the sunshine phase. Do South Korean leaders think that could really work, or do they just believe that there’s no other good option for dealing with North Korea?

NE: Well you have to understand that there are two civil wars on the Korean peninsula. There’s the civil war that’s demarcated at the DMZ between the two Korean states, and then there’s another civil war in South Korea between progressives and conservatives. The degree of polarization in South Korean society is even more extreme than in America today, if you can believe that. And in that extraordinarily polarized environment, it’s people in the progressive camp who tend to adhere to this sunshine ideology. 

Sunshine is a kind of secular religion. One of the key aspects of any religion is that you don’t need empirical validation for the faith. You can keep on doing the same thing again and again and again and expect this time to get different results from all the previous times. That’s where the faith is. Sunshine is a very strong faith for many in South Korea, not a majority, but among many people in South Korea. 

There are lots of historical reasons why that secular faith has taken hold. One of the most obvious reasons is an “end of history” mentality. It’s wearying to be in endless conflict against an implacable foe. It’s wonderful to see a magical solution to that problem. Given this magical-mystical aspect of sunshine, real-world validation hasn’t been needed by its adherents too often.

TI: What would happen if South Korea were to make a separate peace with North Korea? 

NE: If the South made a separate peace with the North, the North would immediately say that the Korean War is over and there is no longer any need for any foreign forces in the Korean peninsula. It would immediately demand the exit of U.S. forces, the end of the defensive alliance, and the withdrawal of the nuclear protective umbrella over South Korea. The North’s doctrine proclaims peaceful and democratic reunification of the country, but in their code-language “peaceful” means no resistance from the South and “democratic” means that the forces supporting the North should triumph in the political process in the South.

TI: Do you think there’s a nonproliferation policy that could possibly work on North Korea?

NE: Yes, but I don’t think it can succeed via signed diplomatic documents because the North Korean government has a  situational-ethics view of signed treaties and promises. As long as those agreements and promises advance the North Korean government’s self-assessed interests, they’re fine. The instant these constrain North Korean interests, they’re violated, ignored, or repudiated. 

A nonproliferation approach has to be a threat reduction approach, akin to the long game that the United States played during the Cold War, in which we use different alliances and coalitions and a wide array of instruments and approaches to reduce the killing power of the North Korean state. Diplomacy will obviously have a role in that, but a lot of that diplomacy will be alliance building, alliance cohesion, and coalition forming. There isn’t that much room for “getting to yes” with the North Korean regime, because the North Korean regime doesn’t do “getting to yes.”

TI: Your description of the dynamics on the peninsula make it sound like either side might see the contest as a race against time. Is that what’s going on?

NE: You could put it that way. You could see it as a race against time. There are asymmetric vulnerabilities. The vulnerabilities in the North lie in its distorted and dependent economy, and in the risk of what Pyongyang calls ideological and cultural poisoning from interaction with the outside world. The risk for the South lies in the sorts of major policy blunders that leadership in open societies sometimes make when they are locked in conflict with mortal enemies. 

Sunshine is a kind of secular religion. One of the key aspects of any religion is that you don’t need empirical validation for the faith.

TI: What do you think North Korea’s endgame is? 

NE: At a time and place of their choosing, the North Korean leadership would manufacture a crisis in which there would be a confrontation with the United States—and that the United States would blink. And by blinking the United States defense guarantee would lose credibility and the U.S. military alliance with South Korea would collapse. U.S. forces would leave the peninsula. The North Korean side would be a giant step closer to unconditional

Of course, even if things were to go that far, it’s not obvious to me that the North Korean state would be capable in succeeding in unconditional unification. The population’s much smaller; the economy’s infinitesimal; and the South has nuclear capabilities, if they care to develop them. It’s not clear to me that North Korea is the cat that comes out of the bag if you throw those two cats into a bag. But the North Korean regime seems to be absolutely convinced that they can prevail in that sort of a contest because they regard the people in the South and the regime in the South as corrupt and gutless and unwilling to fight. 

TI: I think you said earlier that something other than diplomacy needs to happen in order for North Korea to shift its aims and start behaving more like a normal state. What could that something else be?

NE: For our interests to prevail, we need something in addition to diplomacy. I think diplomacy has a role, but a small one. From a North Korean standpoint, there would have to be a complete change in mentality, viewpoint and objectives for the leadership. But for reasons that I mentioned already, it’s hard to see how the leadership would pull that off, given the logic of the state as it has developed up until now. It would require a fundamental break from the past. 

TI: Would that kind of change require somebody other than the Kim family to rule the DPRK?

NE: Not necessarily, of course. We can take a look at the Soviet example. Every so often, one of God’s idiots ends up running a totalitarian regime—witness Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin in the 1980s. He may not have recognized it, but he was undermining the basis of the entire Soviet state from one move to the next. It’s not impossible that someone in North Korea would do the same thing, but I think we have to understand that agreeing to genuine peace with South Korea and genuinely giving up nukes could be regime-destabilizing concessions.