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 as if he wants to eventually strike a deal with the nation’s tyrant, Kim Jong Un. 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. 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 U.S. forces stationed on the peninsula.
And the critics of war are correct. A preemptive strike is not worth the risk. But neither is another deal.
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, and since the 1990s U.S. administrations have enticed Pyongyang with fuel shipments, removing sanctions and promises to leave it alone.
A U.N. report from 2014 estimated there are 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners in North Korea who are slowly starved, tortured and subjected to forced labor in four prison camps. This says nothing of the public and private executions or the forced disappearances, or the punishment of whole families for the alleged crimes of individuals.
Then there is the tyrant himself, Kim Jong Un. He is in every respect a rogue. If Kim gets more inducements to negotiate, what’s to stop him from conducting more abductions or assassinations?
There are no easy answers here. Invading North Korea would risk a major war with China, not to mention commit the U.S. 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. So traditional “regime change” should be off the table.
But this should not stop the U.S. 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.
This means making it harder for Kim and his henchmen to spend and keep their fortunes and accelerating intelligence operations aimed at gumming up the regime’s illicit supply chain for its missiles and nuclear facilities.
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 that the U.S. should continue to flood North Korea with information. 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.
The U.S. should be spending at least $50 million on this.
“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.”