The most depressing aspect of the current North Korean crisis is that even if Donald Trump wins, he loses.
Despite doubling down on his rhetoric of “fire and fury” and deriding his predecessors for failed negotiations, Trump looks like he wants to eventually strike a deal with the nation’s tyrant, Kim Jong-un. Just look at what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is doing. Trump threatens war and Tillerson promises no regime change. Remember it was only a few months ago that Trump said he would be honored to meet with Kim. The president’s recent bellicosity aims for deterrence and leverage.
In substance, if not style, this is very similar to how past administrations have approached the Hermit Kingdom: threaten, cajole and bargain. “This is Obama plus,” Michael Auslin, a Korea expert at the Hoover Institution, told me. “It’s the same path of enhanced sanctions with the potential carrot of direct negotiations and trying to reassure our allies. There is not much different here.”
And it’s easy to understand why talks are better than war. The prospect of a military confrontation is too horrific. North Korea effectively holds its neighbor to the south as a hostage because of its conventional military capabilities. This says nothing of allies like Japan, or US forces stationed on the peninsula.
And the critics of war are correct. A pre-emptive strike is not worth the risk. But neither is another deal.
There are a few reasons for this. First, the North Koreans don’t keep their promises. Nearly every commitment the regime has made to the US, its allies and China, it has violated.
It’s no mystery why North Korea continues to negotiate. The nation needs help from the outside to survive. The regime has pursued nuclear weapons as an insurance policy to stay in power, and since the 1990s US administrations have enticed Pyongyang with fuel shipments, removing sanctions and promises to leave it alone. In exchange, Pyongyang makes empty promises about nuclear weapons. An agreement with North Korea makes America and its allies a partner in the regime’s oppression of its own people.
And this repression is beyond the pale. A UN report from 2014 estimated there are 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners who are slowly starved, tortured and subjected to forced labor in four prison camps so large you can see them in satellite images taken in space. This says nothing of the public and private executions in the state or the forced disappearances, or the punishment of whole families for the alleged crimes of individuals. Americans should rightfully want their government to undermine this gulag state, not help preserve it with another negotiated compromise.
Then there is the tyrant himself, Kim Jong-un. He is in every respect a rogue. It’s not just his threats, or his assassination of his relatives. Kim‘s regime detained an American student, Otto Warmbier, and sent him back to the US this year only when he was in a coma. He died soon after returning home. Negotiating with such a man presents a moral hazard. If Kim gets more inducements to negotiate, what’s to stop him from conducting more abductions or assassinations on foreign soil in the future?
All of this is to say that Trump is posturing in pursuit of a deal, and even if he reached one, he would fail to address the cause of the North Korean crisis: the regime itself.
There are no easy answers here. Invading North Korea would risk a major war with China, not to mention commit the US to keeping the peace on the peninsula at a time when most Americans are rightly weary of military adventurism.
While it would be nice to think our intelligence agencies could foment a coup, this too is more spy fiction than a realistic foreign policy. CIA Director Mike Pompeo has created a new intelligence center to focus on North Korea, but the US has notoriously had little success in recruiting agents inside the country. US intervention would also deprive Koreans themselves of authoring their own liberation.
So traditional “regime change” should be off the table. But this should not stop the US and its allies from helping to create conditions for the day when Koreans can take their country back. This requires some patience and imagination.
The patient part of the policy should be a combination of sabotage and deterrence. North Korea should understand their provocations bring consequences. Those consequences though should be tailored to target the leaders of North Korea and not its broader economy. This means making it harder for Kim and his henchmen to spend and keep their fortunes. It also means accelerating intelligence operations aimed at gumming up the regime‘s illicit supply chain for its missiles and nuclear facilities. The next time the regime tests a missile, let’s hope it blows up on the runway.
The imaginative part is to continue to give North Koreans a glimpse of a better future. Tom Malinowski, who served as President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, wrote in Politico in June that the US should continue to flood North Korea with information. This may sound strange. But in recent years, the state’s ability to control information has waned. More and more Koreans living there have access to portable DVD players and cell phones, which are tools to break the state’s control over the minds of their citizens.
One organization, known as No Chain, is run by North Korean defector and former dissident Jung Gwang-il. No Chain sends helicopter drones with the portable players, along with content like South Korean soap operas, over the border into the country.
Malinowski told me that when he was at the State Department the US government spent around $3 million a year to support similar kinds of organizations. The budget for these programs in the next year will be around $5 million. The US should be spending at least 10 times as much on this. This effort should also include workshops for North Korean defectors on nonviolent conflict, similar to the training the US State Department provided to Serbs before their citizens organized the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
To be sure, feeding information into North Korea is not a silver bullet. It’s impossible to predict the timing of popular revolutions. But it is possible to predict the outcome: A revolution would prevent a catastrophic war.
“Just as with the Cold War, the only sustainable solution is when the North Korean people will be able to take matters into their own hands,” Malinowski told me. “We can’t make that happen. We have to be very careful with the ‘regime change’ rhetoric. But we can help to accelerate the process that is already under way, namely the process of raising consciousness inside the country.”
That may sound like a long shot. It is one. But consider the alternative. For nearly 25 years the US and its allies have threatened North Korea, cajoled North Korea and “won” by reaching deals with North Korea. And yet the regime continues to build nuclear weapons and blackmail the rest of the world. It’s time for a change in Washington as well as Pyongyang.
By Eli Lake
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.