The Skeptics

Kim Jong-un Isn’t Crazy and China Doesn’t Have a Solution

Admittedly no one should expect linear thinking from President Donald Trump. Still, it was a bit jarring to hear him go from calling North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un a “pretty smart cookie” and “gentleman” who the president would be “honored” to meet to a “madman with nuclear weapons.”

Not that the recent phone call with Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte was the first time President Trump questioned Kim’s sanity. Last year candidate Trump said Kim was “like a maniac.”

Thankfully President Trump indicated that he didn’t want to use America’s vastly more powerful military against Kim. The president still looks to Beijing for the answer: “I hope China solves the problem. They really have the means because a great degree of their stuff come[s] through China. But if China doesn’t do it, we will do it.” The president didn’t explain what “it” might involve.

No one who pays attention to the Korean Peninsula believes that there is an easy answer to the challenge of a nuclear North Korea. But finding solutions will become even harder if the problem is misdiagnosed.

The North’s leaders, starting with founder Kim Il-sung, appear to be eminently rational. His son, Kim Jong-il, wore platform shoes, had bouffant hair, donned oversized sunglasses and was particularly easy to caricature (think “Team America”). Nevertheless, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and descendent Kim Jong-un have skillfully wielded power, maintained control, deterred the United States and turned their small country into a Weltmacht of sorts.

The human cost has been great, but that’s no different than in the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China. In those countries equally ruthless parties and leaders took control and made nations. The North’s political system is sui generis, but its participants act in an understandable and predictable fashion.

Indeed, President Trump appeared to accurately assess Kim’s skill in retaining power. Not a pretty sight, but so far effective. Even the execution of Kim’s uncle and presumed assassination of his half-brother seem to have a cruel logic and likely reflect Kim’s fear that China desired a more pliant ruler for the North.

Which means Washington must address why the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea desires nuclear weapons. Those weapons offer prestige, yielding (however grudging) international respect. They offer opportunities for extortion. They generate political support from the military, a key domestic constituency. They boost the North’s otherwise lackluster military capabilities, most notably creating a credible deterrent to any U.S. attempt at regime change. The latter looks more prescient in the aftermath of the ouster of Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, who negotiated away his missile and nuclear programs.

There is no reasoning with a genuine madman. But a discussion could be had with North Korean leadership over its nuclear plans. Admittedly, there’s not much hope that Kim and his followers can be talked out of acquiring a sizeable nuclear arsenal—frankly, the benefits for the regime (if not the nation) are strong. However, objectives other than full denuclearization still would be valuable and might be achievable. But negotiation requires treating North Korea’s leader as closer to “smart cookie” than “madman.”

The president’s other questionable assumption is that China can “solve” the North Korean problem. What does the president means by “solve?” No doubt, most American and South Korean analysts would like to see the North peacefully disarm and reunify with the Republic of Korea, disappearing into the mists of time. But that’s a dream, not a solution. It could happen, of course, but isn’t likely to happen. Making the perfect the enemy of the good won’t do.

In fact, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Pyongyang that the administration does not seek regime change. Nevertheless, Kim is likely to be skeptical, having seen Qaddafi’s fate after the latter was feted in the West for disarming. Even if Kim happened to believe Tillerson, the latter cannot bind his successor. Another president might turn into the second coming of President George W. Bush, who famously tagged the North as a member of the “Axis of Evil,” said he “loathed” Kim Jong-il, and overthrew governments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ending North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs presumably would be viewed as a grand victory. However, having come this far at such cost, and with little reason to trust the continuing beneficence of the U.S. government, Pyongyang is unlikely to agree absent extreme duress. Even the Trump administration appears to recognize that military force and no-go sanctions are the only options.