I know this goes against practically every analyst and pundit who claims expertise on North Korea, but I don’t think Kim Jong Un is crazy at all. He knows that his economy is pitifully weak; he knows that he holds onto power through keeping most of the country in a state of terror of ending up in one of his gulags. He buys the loyalty of the military leaders who prop him up by making sure they are the only genuinely rich people in a very poor country. And just to make sure they stay in line, occasionally he has anyone who shows a whiff of deviation from adulation of the Dear Leader blown apart by an anti-aircraft gun.
His major worry has always come from the outside. But why wouldn’t he be afraid? Japan, South Korea, the United States, Russia — none of them bear Kim the slightest affection. China has only tolerated him this long because they don’t want the headache of hundreds of thousands of refugees spilling over their border. Likewise, South Korea would be hard-put to absorb millions into a Greater Korea without markedly lowering its own standard of living.
The United States has always been Kim’s major worry, which is why he developed his nuclear program and cultivated the impression that he is so unbalanced that he is willing to use it. But he knows damn well that he would be guaranteeing his own annihilation. What good would be the destruction of Seoul or Tokyo or Honolulu if Pyongyang was vaporized? Kim may not care about the well being of the North Korean people, but he sure cherishes his own. You can’t enjoy your power if you are dead. (To speak of other madmen, Hitler, till the very end, thought he was going to turn the tide of the war. Kim knows very well an attack on his part would be signing his own death warrant, not to mention that of the millions of worshippers without whom he is just a little fat man with a bad haircut. He needs them, if only for that.)
What we should give Kim is a sincere, unilateral assurance that no one is going to try to remove him from power, period. While we would obviously prefer he abandon his nuclear weapons program, and offer inducements for him to do so, we should settle for his pledge not to build more for now. (Can’t do any worse than what we’ve tried so far.) We should then lift all sanctions and do all we can to raise the standard of living of the North Korean people.
It is from them that will come any eventual change. An improving economy will be much more likely to increase the flow of information from the outside world, which is already causing internal ripples in North Korea. Right now our understandable reluctance to reward Kim’s behavior with acceptance, even recognition of his regime, is actually allowing him to blame all of his country’s problems on an external threat. If we remove that threat, we remove his excuses to maintain a Spartan economy that exists mostly to feed the military. If we grant him the status of the Great Bringer of Prosperity, we also allow for his popularity to be legitimate, and this is the kind of authentic mass approval he craves. Kim went to boarding school in Switzerland with perfect window on the West. He knows what genuine popular affection looks like — that’s what he wants. (All dictators do.) If he feels that he can get it without risking his grip on power, he will jump at the chance to surpass his father and even grandfather in historical status.
I have read the accounts of Korean gulags, and it pains me to urge that we let Kim’s bluffs and threats pay off. But there is something called strategic retreat, and it often leads to eventual victory. Let Kim “win,” for now. Let him feel secure enough to stop testing missiles and issuing apocalyptic statements.
There are two ways to handle bullies. One is to stand up to them — which often means getting beat up. The other is to make friends with them. We happen to have a President who is equally needy and insecure. I think he should recognize North Korea, and arrange a state visit. He thinks he enjoys the Polish crowds? Kim could command entire stadia to cheer for him. Trump could probably finally pull off one of his vaunted deals, man-baby to man-baby. He’d build a Trump Tower in Pyongyang, but name it “Big Kim.” Yes, a nauseating notion for sure.
But what’s the alternative? Trump declaring Kim’s weapons “fake nukes!” and walking away?
This solution is unsatisfying to be sure, but a small price to pay for the continued existence of Seoul and Tokyo. This is one fight we win by losing.