Talk to Kim Jong-un Even as He Kills His Way to Power in North Korea

Secretary of State John Kerry recently visited Seoul and South Korean President Park Geun-hye will head to Washington later this month. The main agenda item: what to do about North Korea.

As usual, no one knows what is going on in Pyongyang. Its internal politics appears to be bloodier than usual. Ironically, this might provide an opportunity for Washington to initiate talks over a more open bilateral relationship.

The latest rumor is that young dictator Kim Jong-un had his defense minister executed with anti-aircraft fire for disrespectful conduct. Hyon Yong-chol probably has been purged, though South Korea’s intelligence agency acknowledged that it could not confirm his gruesome death. If Hyon was executed, it probably was because the military man was plotting, or at least feared to be plotting, against the North’s leadership.

There has been striking turnover among party and military officials since Kim Jong-un took over after his father’s death in December 2011. Most dramatic was the arrest and execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, seen as the regime’s number two, in December 2013. Overall some 70 top apparatchiks and more than 400 lower level officials apparently have been killed this year.

This brutality towards the power elite sets Kim apart from his father and grandfather. While Kim Jong-un’s apparent penchant for executions may reflect a peculiarly sadistic nature, it more likely grows out of insecurity. Only 28 or maybe 27 when his father died, Kim’s succession was pushed extremely quickly after his father suffered a stroke in August 2008.

Although there is no sign of organized resistance to the latest Kim, continuing turnover suggests that Kim is not, or at least does not see himself, as yet secure. Instead of cowing resistance, promiscuous executions, even for acts short of actual rebellion, might make subordinates believe it is worth going for broke.

Repression is rising in other ways. For instance, the regime apparently has been employing “Patrol Teams” as press gangs to fill out its construction work force for projects to be finished by October, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party. The regime also has strengthened border controls with China.

If Kim retains control, none of this might matter. However, everyone is wary of something other than the usual predictable unpredictability in Pyongyang. South Korean President Park Geun-hye noted “growing concern” over “an extreme reign of terror within North Korea.”

Governance matters since the North continues to expand its nuclear capabilities. While nothing suggests that Kim is suicidal—members of the dynasty appear to prefer their virgins in this world rather than the next—Pyongyang’s decision-making process could become more unilateral, unpredictable, or both.

Unfortunately, there is little that the U.S. can do to directly influence events within the DPRK. War would be foolhardy, tougher sanctions aren’t likely to work, and the Kim regime is well beyond the reach of moral suasion.

Nor is negotiation likely to have much effect. While the North recently launched an international charm offensive, it continues to highlight weapons development and spout rehashed threats against America and the South. The Kim regime is not likely trade away the one factor causing the world to follow events in the DPRK.

Nevertheless, as I point out in Forbes, “the possibility of division and dissension in Pyongyang gives Washington a new reason to suggest direct discussions without preconditions, but with the prospect of benefits for a change in direction. If the regime is unsettled, those disaffected might benefit if Washington stood ready to reward a new approach.”

A peace treaty, diplomatic relations, and end of economic sanctions all should be on the table. It’s still a long-shot, but so is almost any other proposal to address the North.

Someday Pyongyang will change. Engagement is the best way to prepare for that day.