Power is like quicksilver. It often slips through the fingers of those attempting to grasp it. Who is in power in North Korea? Maybe 31-year-old Kim Jong-un. Maybe not.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s Kim disappeared from public view for 40 days. On his return Pyongyang only released undated still photos.
There’ve been no untoward troop movements or party conclaves in the North, though some other signs seemed conflicting. Whoever reigns, there is little reason to hope for nuclear disarmament.
To the contrary, the North appears to be increasing production of fissile material, moving ahead on ICBM development, and upgrading rocket launch facilities. Even a seemingly secure Kim, the “Great Successor” whose father concocted the North’s “military first” policy, would hesitate challenging the armed services by trading away its most important weapon.
Yet there are signs of change elsewhere. The economy appears to be growing, with more consumer goods evident, especially in Pyongyang.
Moreover, Pyongyang appears to be adjusting diplomatic strategies yet again. The North released the three Americans it held, apparently without receiving anything in return.
North Korea’s UN ambassador, So Se-pyong, indicated that the North was ready to return to the six-Party nuclear talks. In early October Pyongyang sent a high-ranking delegation to Seoul for the Asian Games, which proposed further talks, though the latter later foundered.
Nothing suggests that the regime is close to collapse.
In this situation there is little to recommend the administration’s continuing policy of isolating the North. In August North Korea’s deputy UN representative, Ri Tong-il, complained that “No country in the world has been living like the DPRK under serious threats to its existence, sovereignty, survival.”
Of course, the North’s leaders are practiced cynics and their claims cannot be taken at face value. But even paranoids have enemies, it is said, and North Korea is surrounded by wealthier and more powerful adversaries.
A more pacific U.S. approach might not change the Kim regime’s calculus. However, it’s hard to imagine a less threatening DPRK without changing America’s approach.
And that could come in part from diplomatic dialogue. Washington should offer to establish low-key diplomatic relations, perhaps a consulate.
Such a shift would be even more effective if coupled with policy changes that would be in America’s interest in any case. Sanctions haven’t changed the DPRK and should be loosened.
Moreover, Washington should bring home its troops. The U.S. conventional presence is long outmoded: the South has around 40 times the GDP and twice the population of the DPRK.
Washington then could invite the North’s authorities to reciprocate. If Pyongyang failed to act, which would surprise no one, Washington would be no worse off.
It also would be more difficult for Beijing to excuse North Korean misbehavior. Moreover, a troop withdrawal would eliminate the prospect that Korea unification would result in U.S. troops on China’s border, a Chinese nightmare which discourages Beijing from cooperating with Washington.
Even a more responsive North Korea is unlikely to be a particularly friendly actor. Nevertheless, there is more hope for internal improvements in human rights and external talks over the issue if the international environment is less threatening for Pyongyang. America’s earlier refusal to talk to the PRC gained nothing, while the famed Nixon opening helped create an atmosphere more conducive to post-Mao reforms.
Someday North Korea will pass away. As I wrote in National Interest online: “Until then the country is likely to remain a mysterious challenge, unsettling an entire region. Washington’s best approach would be to extricate itself from confrontation and pursue dialogue, while leaving South Korea and Japan free to develop their separate policies.”
Every strategy toward the DPRK so far seems to have failed. Anything adopted is likely to be only a second best. However, today even second best would be a major step forward. It’s time for Washington to try something different.