In 1999, I went to Pyongyang at the requests of U.S. President Bill Clinton, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to negotiate an agreement that would require North Korea to give up its programs to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. In return, South Korea and Japan would provide economic assistance, and the U.S. would offer security assurances.
The discussions were encouraging and were followed by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il sending his senior military aide to Washington in October 2000 to discuss a formal agreement. We were quite close to reaching final terms, but time ran out before the Clinton administration could conclude the agreement. When George W. Bush came to office in 2001, he cut off all discussions with Pyongyang for two years, then agreed with China to begin the so-called six-party talks to deal with North Korea’s increasingly dangerous nuclear program.
The net result of more than a decade of six-party talks is that North Korea built a small nuclear arsenal, conducted successful tests of nuclear bombs and long-range missiles and engaged in increasingly threatening rhetoric. Indeed, North Korea has explicitly threatened to use its nuclear weapons to create a “sea of fire” in South Korea. Most recently, U.S. President Donald Trump stated that he would not permit North Korea to build an intercontinental ballistic missile capability. North Korea has fired a volley of missiles landing in Japanese territorial waters, and some Japanese leaders are asking whether they should conduct a preemptive attack on North Korea.
This situation is clearly dangerous and seems to be getting more dangerous every week. But the danger is not that North Korea would launch a surprise nuclear attack. I have studied North Korea for several decades and have had serious talks with many of their military and political leaders. It’s true that North Korean leaders have a history of taking calculated risks, that they have taken many outrageous actions against South Korea and that they are ruthless to their own people.
But they are not crazy, as some people believe. North Korea is a pariah state and nearly alone in the world, but there is logic to the actions of its leadership. Fundamental to that logic is an overriding commitment to keeping their regime in power, to sustain the Kim dynasty. Against all odds, they have succeeded in doing so.
The North Korean leaders are not crazy, as some people believe.
This is a very different problem than we face with al Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State. The North Korean leadership is not suicidal; they are not seeking martyrdom. They want to stay in power, and they understand that if they launch a nuclear attack, their country will be destroyed, and they themselves will be killed — it would end the Kim dynasty.
Their nuclear arsenal does give them a tenuous hold on power, but only if they do not use it. Having said that, I believe that this arsenal is still very dangerous and may embolden the leadership to take even riskier provocations than they have in the past — they could very well overplay their hand. They might provoke South Korea to take military action against them, and that military action could escalate into a wider conflict involving the U.S.
Thus, North Korea could blunder into a major war — a war that they would surely lose. As the certainty of that outcome became clear, as they saw their regime about to be overthrown, they might then use their nuclear weapons in a last, desperate move. That is the danger — a nuclear war that North Korea blunders into, not one that they deliberately start.
The North Korean leadership understands that if it launches a nuclear attack, its country will be destroyed.
Our diplomacy has consistently failed to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal and is likely to continue to fail if that is our overriding goal. But we do have a viable diplomatic option to reduce the dangers created by that arsenal. I believe that North Korea might well agree to give up testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and agree not to sell or transfer any of its nuclear technology, in return for economic concessions from South Korea and security assurances from the U.S.
That is certainly not the agreement we have been seeking for decades, but it would be well worth having. It would lower the dangers we now face and conceivably set the stage for a later agreement to roll back their nuclear arsenal. I do not suggest this approach with any enthusiasm. But our only realistic alternative is military force. And while North Korea would be defeated in any war, they could inflict terrible devastation on South Korea and Japan before that defeat.
The North Korean regime is the last Stalinist regime in the world, which we rightly abhor. But over many years, I learned one crucial lesson: we must deal with North Korea as it is, not as we wish it to be.