Our North Korea Conundrum

What I don’t understand is why Americans accuse Kim Jong Un of being irrational and unpredictable (or even insane). I find Kim’s behavior totally rational and I can predict virtually all his actions vis-a-vis the U.S. and South Korea with fair accuracy. All I need do is put myself in his position and ask myself, what would I do?

To get a better sense of the situation, we have to look back on its history. Since 1945 when the Japanese were driven from the Korean peninsula and it was first divided by U.S. and Soviet forces into two separate nations, South Korea has been treated as a client state of the U.S. while North Korea was pretty much abandoned and left to its own. In 1950, North Korea invaded the south in an attempt to unify the Koreas under Communist control. The U.S. responded with massive forces driving the North Koreans all the way to the Yalu River at which point China came to aid of the North Koreans and drove the U.S./South Korean forces back. A stalemate was reached around the 38th parallel and an armistice was concluded there in 1953. No peace treaty was ever signed. Shortly after the armistice, the Chinese withdrew most of their forces whereas the U.S. kept a large contingent in South Korea, which today still numbers more than 20,000 combatants, and has conducted joint military exercises (among the largest military exercises in the world) with the South Koreans along the border between the two countries every year since.

North Korea borders only three countries, South Korea, China and Russia. (The Russian border is about 10 miles long in a mostly unsettled area in the most remote hinterland of Russia and, for all practical purposes, is insignificant in its relations.) South Korea essentially belongs to the U.S., which is openly hostile towards North Korea and which dominates all other countries along the Pacific rim except Russia. So basically, North Korea’s only interaction with the rest of the world is through China.

Now let’s put ourselves in Kim’s position. You are now the leader of a Communist government (one of only five remaining in the world today) which, aside from China, is isolated from the rest of the world. Your natural resources are limited, devastating economic sanctions have been placed on you, and your enemy, which has the largest military in the world (complete with more than 4,000 nuclear warheads), is openly bent on regime change in your country. If you were rational, you would be concerned about self preservation. You would want to stay in power, you wouldn’t want to be invaded, you wouldn’t want a revolution and you wouldn’t want to wind up like Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. With few friends and limited resources, what would you do? If you were smart, you would want to secure your borders and secure peace within your own country. To do that you would build a strong army to protect against invasion from the outside and to protect you from internal revolt. You would also distribute what resources you have as equitably as feasible to minimize public unrest (remember, you are a Communist and you believe in Marxian philosophy). Then you would seek the biggest bang for the buck to appear strong to your own people and to ward off all other enemies. Where do you get that? Nuclear weapons. So you bust your butt developing a nuclear deterrent against an invasion from the south. But now your enemies don’t like that because it gives you some bargaining power. They want you to get rid of your nuclear weapons; but what do they offer in return? Not much – maybe lifting some sanctions, maybe a peace treaty (maybe the Libyan model). Furthermore, they want you to get rid of your nuclear weapons before they give you anything. Would you buy that? Add to that the fact that your enemy has reneged on a number of international agreements and has a personal history of fraud, abuse and reneging on contractual business agreements before becoming president.

Now your southern neighbor has recently opened the door for peaceful negotiations between you and your enemy, to which you readily agreed. But immediately following the invitation, your enemy, instead of postponing a previously planned military exercise on your southern border proceeds to do so demonstrating the same degree of hostility and aggressiveness as in previous years. In addition, your enemy starts talking about denuclearization being a pre-condition to any peaceful settlement. So what would you do? If you had any sense, you would say “whoa, wait a minute, I didn’t agree to anything like that”, which is pretty much what Kim said. Now your enemy, being who he is, can’t abide the thought of being one upped by someone else so he preempts you by pulling out of the agreement first. And so, we are back to square one. What would you do now? Would you acquiesce, beg forgiveness and agree to get rid of your nuclear weapons just so you can meet with your enemy – with no guarantees of anything in return?

I could tell you what my crystal ball tells me Kim will do, but I want you to gaze into your crystal ball, cite the appropriate incantations and tell me what you would do.

Given all the above, how did the peace talks get derailed? What it boils down to is, if you intend to deal effectively with an opponent, or even a friend, you need to understand where that person is coming from, what motivates him and what makes him tick. Therein lies the fundamental flaw in U.S. diplomacy — that those in positions of power lack the empathy to place themselves in the positions of others, to understand and appreciate their concerns and to negotiate in good faith for the benefit of everyone. We say that Kim won’t do that, but on the flip side, we have never done that. Until we are willing and able to do that, there will never be peace on the Korean peninsula.