For someone so determined to present a macho image of dominance, President Donald Trump exhibits a nervous fixation with North Korea. That worry, even fear was evident in his State of the Union speech.
The president made Pyongyang a focus of his address. He highlighted the threat supposedly posed by Kim regime as well as its crimes against humanity. Yet the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is a small, impoverished and isolated state. Its nuclear ambitions are disturbing, but it trails China, Russia, Pakistan, India, and Israel in nuclear arsenals. An American carrier group or two probably have the equivalent firepower of the entire North Korean conventional military.
Then there is South Korea, which alone possesses roughly forty-five times the GDP and twice the population of the DPRK. Seoul could create a much more powerful military than the North. Japan too. Absent a showing that Kim Jong-un is irrational, even suicidal, it is evident that the North is more interested in deterring than attacking America.
The president also reminded us that Pyongyang hosts a brutal regime. True, but he is no tender-hearted squish when it comes to human rights. His self-proclaimed buddies include Xi Jinping, Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Vladimir Putin. Getting the bad side of any of these dictators is likely to land you in prison, perhaps for a very long time; some critics end up penniless, in exile or dead. Forget quaint notions of democracy. President Trump is not known to have ever even mentioned the word in their presence.
But the president appears to view the North Korea danger to be so great that he is prepared to start the Second Korean War by attacking the DPRK. It would be a wild gamble. He expects the regime—which he claims is murderous, irrational, dangerous and undeterrable—to supinely accept American military strikes which would eliminate the North’s best weapons and/or decapitate its leadership. That a family dynasty which has resolutely defended its independence from Moscow and Beijing would peacefully genuflect to Washington. What could possibly go wrong with this strategy?
Yet if President Trump doesn’t strike his policy may help keep Supreme Leader Kim in power. First, the president loudly and routinely threatens war. However, while the North’s officials may be evil, they are not stupid. As anyone who has visited the DPRK and spoken with North Koreans, as I did last year, knows, they point to American behavior—not just military presence and activities in Northeast Asia, but attacks on other regimes, especially in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. In the latter America and Europe made a deal with Muammar el-Qaddafi, promising him friendship, love, and much benefit in return for sacrificing his missile and nuclear programs. Then at the first convenient opportunity the allies took him out. No one in Pyongyang has forgotten the image of Qaddafi’s unpleasant capture and gruesome death.
Who, then, is surprised that the North believes it needs a deterrent to the United States? Especially since the Kim dynasty is now dealing with a president who constantly talks of war, says his officials don’t speak for him and dumps agreements made by his predecessors. Why would Kim believe anything President Trump, or anyone who works for him, says or promises? Washington should not trust Pyongyang. But Pyongyang would be equally foolish to trust Washington.
The second mistake is to ban travel to North Korea. As of September 1 the Trump administration prohibited visiting the DPRK without the State Department’s permission. It came after the tragic death of college student Otto Warmbier. The president implied abuse in his SOTU address, but did not formally accuse Pyongyang of torture, presumably because neither the doctors nor coroner found evidence backing the claim. Certainly, Pyongyang was capable of mistreating Warmbier—given what it has done to its own people—but Americans are valuable to the DPRK only when alive. The North is not the only nation where ignoring local rules can result in extreme consequences. Stories about the irresponsible behavior of Warmbier’s tour company also suggest that the backstory might have been more complex than appeared.
Of course, Warmbier in no way deserved what happened to him. Nevertheless, another 1000 or so American tourists visited the North in 2016 without incident. In fact, when I went last year—invited by the foreign ministry—I ran into staffers and volunteers with a humanitarian group who were staying at the same hotel. The leader told me the organization had investigated every case of an American being arrested, sixteen over the previous decade or so, and everyone had “done something,” though nothing that in America would result in punishment. North Korean officials said they weren’t concerned about unintentional slights, but they would punish intentional misbehavior.
That means, for instance, if you crossed illegally into the DPRK with your Bible intending to evangelize, as did one American who was imprisoned for a time, bad things would happen to you. In contrast, tourists who avoided cultural/political landmines, just as one should do when visiting an Islamic nation (don’t speak ill of the Prophet, or you may end up in jail or dead at the hands of a mob) or any other, you almost certainly would board your flight home without incident and on time.
Of course, tourism has a frivolous sound to it when it comes to North Korea. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who spends much of his time pushing to visit death and destruction on other peoples, denounced as “stupid” those who wanted to travel to the North. Doing so actually would be better than bombing them. By bringing foreign peoples and ideas to the DPRK, even in a highly constrained form, tourism eats away at the totalitarian foundations of the Kim dynasty.
North Korea is changing. It is not the one-time all-knowing, all-seeing, all-doing state. Kim is pushing a policy of dual development, economics and nuclear weapons. His father and grandfather ostentatiously sacrificed the first. Now there is color and commerce, private cars and cell phones. The elite, at least, have tasted the good life.
Moreover, the one-time Hermit Kingdom no longer is hermetically sealed. Researchers estimate that some 30 percent of North Koreans regularly listen to foreign radio broadcasts, a mix of U.S. (Voice of America/Radio Free Asia), South Korean and Chinese programing. Even more pervasive is ROK pop culture. Explained Thae Yong-ho, who defected as deputy chief of mission at the North Korean embassy in the United Kingdom, “It depends on the class, but there is not one North Korean who hasn’t seen [a] South Korean drama as far as I know. It’s no longer easy for the regime to cut off” access.
Traffic across the Chinese border is substantial. North Koreans even have cell phones. My two “handlers” played with their devices while showing me the sights. Although overseas calls are banned, they are common. And fines reportedly have replaced prison terms as punishment for violations.
Flash drives filled with information and entertainment from South Korea and China circulate. SD memory cards increasingly are used, called “nose cards” since they can be hidden in the nostrils. Reports from North Korean defectors suggest that South Korean soaps are among the most threatening vehicles for change. It becomes quickly evident while watching one that the world is different from that claimed by the Pyongyang government.
The regime obviously fears the consequences of a freer information flow. When I entered North Korea officials listed two flash drives along with my computer and other electronic equipment. They wanted me to take them out.
Meeting foreigners can be similarly disorienting. The regime’s mantra is that others, especially Americans, mean the country ill. President Trump reinforced this meme by threatening to “destroy” the DPRK. But North Koreans who meet travelers have a very different experience. They find friendly people with news of a different world.
In fact, the regime’s toleration of foreigners undercuts its hostile message about their intentions. Last fall the DPRK hosted a (lightly attended) marathon in Pyongyang, which included runners from several European nations.
Even more important are humanitarian workers. Despite the regime’s status as one of the world’s greatest religious persecutors, it welcomes religious charities which provide desperately needed health care. Their work does more than meet a physical need. The head of one such group told me that when they meet a patient for the first time the person typically is suspicious, even fearful. On the next visit, however, they are anxious to be treated. They discovered that a foreigner was helping them, doing something their government could not. An American priest, Gerard Hammond, who regularly visited North Korea, observed: “In the early church, they didn’t have crucifixes or Roman collars or Bibles, but people knew they were Christian because they treated people with kindness.”
Reducing contact will cost Washington something else: insight into the North. Anyone who has visited the DPRK quickly realizes that it is, er, an “unusual” place. Being there provides perspective that should be useful in better understanding the system and designing more effective policies. A diplomatic mission would do some of the same. Although today the North is less isolated today, ignorance of the North has often been appalling. When I first visited the North a quarter century ago, a State Department staffer asked me if North Koreans wore socks, since photos he saw showed North Koreans from the waist up. The answer, unsurprisingly, was yes, they wore socks. Failing to understand the North almost ensures bad policies toward it.
In theory exemptions are available for humanitarian activities. But the exceptions are few and worries remain. Heidi Linton, who manages Christians for Korea, said “Humanitarian activities are being seriously jeopardized, and Christian organizations like ours face additional challenges.”
Another member of the Linton family, connected to Korea through missionaries going back to the late nineteenth century, Stephen Linton, founder of the Eugene Bell Foundation, expressed concern that now Pyongyang will know that any group involved is in the North only at the sufferance of Washington: “Getting permission from the government to go puts an X mark on your back because the North Koreans will never believe that you are there just for humanitarian purposes if the government gave you permission to go.”
In some cases organizations have decided to give up. For instance, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology no longer is recruiting Americans, who once made up half of the faculty. Until the ban, about sixty Americans either served on the staff or were family members of employees. Other staffers were affected too, explained Colin McCulloch, Director of External Relations: “Some others are not returning, for the present, due to security concerns and their sending agencies’ risk assessments.”
Truly bizarre was the Trump administration's decision to ban North Koreans from America. Since the DPRK does not allow its citizens to leave, there is no queue of would-be immigrants. In 2015 fifty-five North Koreans gained residency status: roughly half were family members of American citizens, with the rest having a mix of refugee and employment status. About 100 nonimmigrant visas were issued the same year, divided among diplomats and visitors coming for business/tourism. Since the ban serves no security purpose—despite Pyongyang's failure to follow U.S. security procedures, the formal justification, no one imagines North Korean refugees turning into radical terrorists—it is widely seen as being designed to disguise the administration's true objective of targeting selected Islamic nations.
If the Trump administration is serious about eliminating North Korea as a threat, it should encourage more international contact. The point is not that any result is predetermined or inevitable. But the best hope for peaceful change may be transformation within, even to a more normal authoritarian regime with a less threatening external posture. While the North Korean system remains tough, it looks brittle, undermined by defections and held together by executions. Few expected the Berlin Wall to fall or the Soviet Union to dissolve when they did. The Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania appeared resilient, until, suddenly, it wasn't. Washington should play the long game, instead of seeing military action as the easy answer.
Banning travel to the North was a mistaken response to a tragedy. Said Christine Ahn, coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, “While the motivation behind the United States’ ban on travel to North Korea is understandable—no one wants to see another American suffer like Otto Warmbier—it is counterproductive to the broader objective of securing peace in the region.”
Washington should encourage Western contact with North Koreans, whatever other policies are being advanced. For instance, Thae Yong-ho advocated “maximum engagement” with the DPRK’s leadership and people even while pressing for “maximum pressure.” He views expanded access to information as a vehicle for change. So should the United States.
There is no simple answer to the challenge posed by North Korea. Certainly not war—nor isolation. The more Americans visit the DPRK, the harder for the “Hermit Kingdom” to seal out seditious foreign thoughts.