I have been in DC for the past 3 months or so after graduating from Fletcher looking for work and learning about the city. This has included going to several events featuring lectures and panels on North Korea. The more I go to these events, the more I feel that many of the NK experts in the city have a fundamental misunderstanding of North Korea. This becomes especially evident when I hear people describing the need to engagement with North Korea, or to try and shape North Korea’s policies (especially toward nuclear issues) with economic engagement. In order to help clear things up in these regards, in this post, I will offer what I think are the two things key to understanding North Korea, and what they mean for policy towards North Korea.
- North Korea Vs. Kim Jong Un: At many of these events, the panelists talk about what North Korea does, or what North Korea wants, or what is in North Korea’s interest. This is a mistake, and a fundamental misunderstanding. North Korea’s interest involves things like economic growth, openness, and possibly giving up nuclear weapons, however that is largely irrelevant as long as Kim Jong Un maintains control, because all of these things are not in his interest. Understanding North Korean state behavior is much easier when you accept that the basic idea that the Kim family is greedy and does not actually care that much about the North Korean people, and things that benefit the North Korean people many times do not benefit the regime. Trying to offer inducements that benefit the people will not convince Kim Jong Un to give up nuclear weapons, human rights abuses or illicit behavior. Current status quo policy has resulted in Kim Jong Un having enormous private wealth and power, why assume that he is so interested in threatening this? China opened, USSR opened, and none of the outcomes of that look good to the Kim family, and from the point of view of a greedy man that is understandable.
- North Korea is a source of stability: This is counter-intuitive. The standard idea goes something like everyone in the region agrees that a belligerent North Korea has no place in a peaceful, stable, rich North East Asia, but this is incorrect, and the current stable, peaceful, rich North East Asia provides strong counter-evidence. It is true that North Korean provocations are harmful and worrying, but they have been coming at a steady pace for decades without other states escalating and punishing North Korea meaningfully. The honest conclusion is that the world community has decided that a North Korean collapse would be more destabilizing than the current state of affairs, and is thus willing to mostly respond to North Korean provocations and human rights abuses with bluster. (Don’t believe, than read this excellent piece by Joshua Stanton that shows how we sanction states like Iran and others much harshly than NK) This is also why the US, SK, China and others provide North Korea with aid without insisting on usual compliance measures to ensure it goes where it is most needed.
If you take these two main points together, the response to North Korea, and the panels about it, actually make more sense. I take it as almost a given that what benefits the North Korean people, and what benefits Kim Jong Un are almost never the same, however practically all engagement and aid goes through the Kim regime. I think that some aid groups that provide non-fungible things like medical aid to the North Korean people are great and should be continued, but they are the exception, not the rule. Almost every major engagement attempt has strengthened the Kim family and not the North Korean people (at least every major state sponsored engagement) and it takes a misreading of history or a willful suspension of disbelief to believe otherwise. However, if you accept the second idea, that North Korea is actually a force for stability, than the cognitive dissonance makes more sense. If you fear a collapse (which is reasonable), you will chose policies designed to prevent this. These policies inevitably strengthen the regime (how could they not?) However, saying you are strengthening the regime is unacceptable politically and morally, so in order to get around this, you suggest that economic enticements and engagement and patience will change the regimes behavior, and then somehow peaceful unification will occur. (A paraphase of an actual policy idea I heard at an event today from a speaker)