Taking New Approach to North Korea

In North Korea, Kim Jong-un appears to rule supreme. There is no talk of collective leadership, competing coalitions or personal limitations.

Kim has done what many of us thought impossible: take and keep control in one of the world’s most dangerous political snake pits. His father spent far less time preparing the way for Kim than his grandfather had for his father. And Pyongyang was filled with party apparatchiks, military officers and skilled technocrats who had waited more than six decades to supersede the Kim dynasty.

But the young Kim, about to turn only 33 in January, skillfully and sometimes brutally purged the various mentors and minders chosen by his father. Scores of top officials have been executed. Nothing suggests sufficient opposition to oust Kim or overthrow the system.

Indeed, he may prove to be more successful than either his father or grandfather.

Kim Jong-un is pushing his “Byungjin” strategy, both economic development and nuclear weapons. Despite international opprobrium and sanctions, even by the DPRK’s onetime allies Beijing and Moscow, he appears to be succeeding. Missile and nuclear tests continue, suggesting that Pyongyang has made greater progress than foreign experts had expected.

The economy also is growing, perhaps by two or three percent a year. The base remains very low, almost nonexistent in many rural areas. Nevertheless, the turnaround is dramatic from the famine a couple of decades ago.

Which suggests that the Trump administration will find itself facing an ugly reality. First, a relatively secure Kim Jong-un in control of a reasonably stable North Korean state. Second, a slightly more prosperous North Korea able to give the nomenklatura enough material goods to maintain elite commitment to the regime and loyalty to the Kim dynasty. Third, a military capable of striking U.S. bases and eventually the American homeland, creating a genuine nuclear deterrent to Washington.

What to do? More of the same is likely to deliver more of the same results. Not negotiating has not slowed DPRK military activities. But negotiations appeared to have little more effect. And virtually no one believes that Pyongyang is inclined to voluntarily yield up its nuclear program.

The president-elect said he wants Beijing to solve the North Korea “problem.” Unfortunately, he assumes the People’s Republic of China has more influence than it does in Pyongyang: North Korea and the PRC might rightly be called frenemies. The DPRK long has resisted the “fraternal” advice coming from its big brother.

A new approach is needed. Propose negotiations, including bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang, over more limited issues, such as restrictions on nuclear activities, conventional weapons pullbacks, other confidence-building steps and diplomatic recognition. Offer a benefits package that addresses the North’s security as well as its economy, taking into account America’s proclivity to wage wars for regime change. Develop a common front with the PRC against the North which serves both America’s and China’s interests. Prepare tougher targeted sanctions. And contemplate how to deal with a nuclear North Korea if the foregoing fails to halt Pyongyang’s plans.

North Korea is likely to pose one of the most difficult challenges for the Trump administration. It won’t take long for President Donald Trump to discover that sloganeering isn’t likely to prove nearly as useful as president as it did as presidential candidate.

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