North Korea obviously wants to be a nuclear power with the ability to deter the United States. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to reassure Pyongyang about America’s intentions. Unfortunately, however, Kim Jong-un would be a fool to believe any promises made by Washington. Only actions are likely to convince him.
In recent days Secretary Tillerson has gone on a charm offensive directed at the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). He said America is not the DPRK’s enemy and Washington is not seeking regime change. The implication is that Kim should relax, agree to give up his nukes and missiles, and enter into a beautiful new friendship with America—just like Muammar el-Qaddafi did back in 2003. Okay, maybe not Qaddafi, but surely the North Korean Supreme Leader gets the point.
The problem is, Kim almost certainly does get the point. And that doesn’t help Secretary Tillerson or the Trump administration.
Imagine trying to maintain the Kim dynasty, now on the third generation, in today’s world. The DPRK remains desperately poor; a bad harvest threatens the countryside with malnutrition and hardship. The North is locked in a long-term competition with South Korea, which has around forty times the GDP and twice the population. Moreover, Seoul is defended by the world’s sole superpower, which routinely runs aircraft carriers along North Korea’s coast and flies bombers over North Korea’s cities. Pyongyang is friendly with Russia and nominally allied with China, but neither of its traditional protectors likely would save the DPRK from internal collapse or external aggression.
The way forward surely involves some economic reform, which Pyongyang is undertaking. But too much economic liberty could undermine the totalitarian political order. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is willing to help, but Beijing does little for free. Kim wants to rule an independent nation, not a de facto PRC province. Whatever Moscow does likely will reflect its relations with America, since relations with the DPRK are more a means to inconvenience Washington than than a positive end. Ultimately, the North can only depend on itself.
For that purpose, nukes and missiles obviously are helpful. They certainly offer a comparatively cheap means of defense, given the impossibility of matching the Republic of Korea and United States in conventional forces. Affirming the North’s strategy are the squeals from Washington policymakers who fear not so much of being attacked, but of being prevented from attacking the DPRK without consequence.
There are other reasons Kim might want his country to become a nuclear power—international status, opportunities for neighborly extortion, strengthening the military’s allegiance to the family dynasty. However, long-range missiles only make sense as a means to confront the United States. If Washington wasn’t threatening North Korea, Pyongyang would prefer to ignore the hyper-power half-way around the globe. Since that’s not the case, the North logically wants to be able to bring the war home to Americans.
Thus, Tillerson hopes to convince the DPRK leadership that it has nothing to worry about. It is a worthy intention. If only Kim felt safe, he would disarm and embrace Uncle Sam. Or something like that.
Should Kim believe Secretary Tillerson? No knock on the secretary, but diplomats and their equivalents have been lying since the first negotiation at the beginning of time. Who can imagine the secretary instead declaring that the DPRK tops America’s target list for regime change? Whatever Secretary Tillerson actually believes, he will say he is for peace.
Even if Secretary Tillerson is truly inclined in that direction, why should anyone believe the same of President Donald Trump? The two have disagreed on a host of issues—how to approach to Europe, the value of the Iran nuclear deal, blame among the feuding Gulf States. As president, Donald Trump can set policy if he chooses. Having already threatened war and talked of sending armadas to the region, the president could easily overrule his secretary of state and opt for war.
Alas, no one knows what the president believes. He accused the South Koreans of cheating the United States by free-riding, called Kim a “smart-cookie” he would be honored to meet, affirmed the alliance, suggested that Kim was insane, tried to subcontract the North Korea problem to China, dismissed the alliance as of no value, promised to act alone against the DPRK. What foreign leader would trust President Trump to take a position—any position—and stick with it?
Moreover, the North Koreans surely are not ignorant of the strong war party in Washington whose members do the Maori Haka whenever a possible conflict appears on the horizon. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have been talking up the likelihood of war. The latter said he expects President Trump to act if Pyongyang does not yield. Even if the DPRK abandoned its nukes, American politicians soon might be back advocating military action. Only a couple years before the ouster of Qaddafi, McCain and Graham had dinner with the Libyan leader in Tripoli and suggested the possibility of foreign aid to reward him for his cooperation against Al Qaeda. Soon thereafter they were pushing for military action to oust him.