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.