On North Korea, hope is not a strategy

July 11, 2017

On North Korea, hope is not a strategy

by Fareed Zakaria*

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Fareed Zakaria with POTUS Donald J. Trump

*Dr. Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. Before being named to his position at time in October 2010, Zakaria spent 10 years overseeing Newsweek’s editions abroad and eight years as the managing editor of Foreign Affairs. He is the author of “The Post-American World” (2009) and “The Future of Freedom” (2007). Born in India, Zakaria received a B.A. from Yale College and a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He lives in New York City with his wife, son and two daughters.


In Washington, there is a conventional wisdom on North Korea that spans both parties and much of elite opinion. It goes roughly like this: North Korea is the world’s most bizarre country, run by a crackpot dictator with a strange haircut. He is unpredictable and irrational and cannot be negotiated with. Eventually this weird and cruel regime will collapse. Meanwhile, the only solution is more and more pressure. But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong?

The North Korean regime has survived for almost seven decades, preserving not just its basic form of government but also its family dynasty, father to son to grandson. It has persisted through the fall of the Soviet Union and its communist satellites, the Orange Revolution, the Arab Spring and the demise of other Asian dictatorships, from South Korea to Taiwan to Indonesia.

Image result for North Korea--The Kims

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un defies Donald Trump and his allies and now threatens peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific. His survival depends on the Military and the backing of China and Russia.–Din Merican

The Kim dynasty has been able to achieve striking success in its primary objective — survival. Of course, this is because it rules in a brutal and oppressive fashion, but so did many other regimes, from Romania to Syria to Myanmar. But somehow North Korea has maintained its system.

Kim Jong Un is a young man but has been highly effective at preserving his authority. He has secured the support of the military and sidelined or killed anyone who threatened his grip on power — including his uncle and, allegedly, his half-brother.

Look at the world from North Korea’s perspective. The regime saw the collapse of the Soviet empire and an even more unsettling transformation in China, which went from being a fiery ideological soul mate to a pragmatic trading state that has eagerly integrated into world markets. These days, Beijing seems to view Pyongyang as a nuisance, and China now often votes to condemn and sanction North Korea at the United Nations.

And the world’s most powerful country has made clear that North Korea is destined for the ash heap of history. After 9/11, when the U.S. was attacked by Islamist terrorists emanating from the Middle East, George W. Bush announced that the United States would no longer tolerate an “axis of evil” comprising Iraq, Iran — and North Korea. It invaded Iraq. Current U.S. policy toward Iran, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently said, is to “work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.” And regarding North Korea, Donald Trump wants China to “end this nonsense once and for all,” which again can only mean getting rid of the Kim government in some way.

So, the North Korean regime has tried to buy insurance. And in the realm of international affairs, the best insurance is having a nuclear capacity. Pyongyang knows that it has a large-enough army and the Korean theater of war is so small and dense that a conventional war would be unthinkable, producing hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of refugees pouring into China and South Korea. North Korea has accurately calculated that China and South Korea are more terrified of the chaos that would follow its collapse than of its nuclear arsenal.

Perhaps the right way to look at North Korea is as a smart, rational, calculating government that is functioning shrewdly given its priority of regime survival. More pressure only strengthens its resolve to buy even more insurance. How to handle it under these circumstances?

The first way to break the logjam in U.S. policy would be to convince China to put real pressure on its ally. That won’t happen by serving President Xi Jinping chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago. Beijing faces an understandable nightmare — under sanctions and pressure, North Korea collapses and the newly unified country becomes a giant version of South Korea, with a defense treaty with Washington, nearly 30,000 American troops and possibly dozens of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons — all on China’s border.

Washington will have to promise Beijing now that in the event of unification, it would withdraw its troops, change the nature of its treaty relationship with the new Korea and, working with China, eliminate Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

But pressure will work only if there is also some reason for North Korea to make concessions. Pyongyang has indicated in the past that it seeks a formal end to the Korean War (Washington signed only an armistice in 1953), a recognition of the regime, and the lifting of sanctions. Obviously none of this should be offered right now, but there is no harm in talking to Pyongyang and searching for ways to trade some of these concessions for the complete eradication of the nuclear program.

It’s a bitter pill for Washington to swallow, but the alternative is to hope that China will act against its interests and crush its ally, or that North Korea will finally collapse. But hope is not a strategy.

Fareed Zakaria’s email address is comments@fareedzakaria.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group


8 thoughts on “On North Korea, hope is not a strategy

  1. LaMoy,

    How to deal with this “Hermit Kingdom”? We in ASEAN certainly do not welcome another Korean conflict. The danger is that when pushed into a corner, Young Kim will retaliate by attacking Seoul and Tokyo.

    America and its allies must learn to accept that the Kim regime is here to stay. Trump should, therefore,start negotiations with Kim in stead of threatening Kim’s leadership.Threats no longer work to a desperate nation. Let diplomacy do its work.–Din Merican

  2. Call me crazy if you want, Bang Din. I know there is a lot of war rhetoric in North East Asia today. But I see Washington under Trump may be closer to peace than at any point in nearly two decades. This is because the US appears to be shifting away from a policy that exacerbated the conflict. Under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the US mixed two fundamentally conflicting aims in its dealings with North Korea. Washington aimed for both denuclearization and regime change. The first goal is strategic, and the second is largely ideological. But the threat of regime change is the very reason the North Korean regime wants a nuclear deterrent. There are signs that Trump may take American policy beyond this strategic-ideological schizophrenia. Tillerson had said the US needs to separate its values from its policies. For the sake of national and regional security, curtailing Pyongyang’s weapons program is clearly the higher priority.

    Two misperceptions have resulted in a confused policy toward North Korea. First is the notion that it has been a client state of China since the end of the Korean War, driven by an ideological alliance between the two communist countries and China’s need for a buffer between it and US-allied South Korea. In the Financial Times, for instance, James Kynge wrote , “Beijing remains inclined to tolerate its exasperating client state.” But for much of the Cold War, North Korea was a client state of the Soviet Union, not of China. The Soviets provided virtually all of the economic and military aid to North Korea, including its initial nuclear capability. During much of the same period, China was in a quasi-alliance with the US against the USSR. After the fall of the USSR, North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un, went to China in 1991 and met with Deng Xiaoping. He entreated his neighbor to take over the leadership of the communist world and assume patronage of his country. Deng rejected the pleas. His famous words “Tao guang yang hui” (“Keep a low profile”), China’s foreign policy doctrine for the following decades, were uttered for the first time in front of the elder Kim during that meeting. China, however, did provide, and still does, just enough material support to help a close neighbor; Beijing dislikes the idea of instability on its northeastern border that might result from a state collapse. But the notion of a client state based on an ideological bond is simply wrong. China does have some leverage, but it does not, as Trump has said , hold the key to controlling North Korea.

    The second misperception is that it’s time for action, because marathon talks over many years failed to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. “Strategic patience has ended,” Tillerson said. This radically oversimplifies the history of negotiations, both directly between the US and DPRK and involving neighboring countries. Yes, negotiations failed. But they very nearly succeeded. Two multi-year negotiation processes were carried out after the Cold War. Under the Clinton administration, the US talked with North Korea directly, without China’s involvement, and in 1994 signed the Agreed Framework on resolving the nuclear issue. The George W. Bush administration engaged in several rounds of three-party talks and six-party talks, hosted by China at the request of the US. Both negotiations were able to keep the nuclear situation under control for sustained periods of time and came tantalizingly close to resolving it. Toward the end of the Clinton administration, the situation had improved so much that Bill Clinton seriously considered visiting North Korea.

    There were several reasons they eventually all failed, among them lack of trust and delayed implementations by both sides. But the most decisive reason was America’s conflicting goals of denuclearization and regime change. Former defense secretary William Perry said on a number of occasions that the North Koreans could not be developing nuclear weapons to use them, because that would be suicide. So they must have created them to ensure their own survival against a US attack. Yet ever since Bush’s “axis of evil” speech in 2002, Washington has been unwilling to forgo its ideological aim of regime change to realize denuclearization.

    This conflict in US aims was at the heart of the failure of the six-party talks and the tit-for-tat escalations between the two countries during the Obama administration. In fact, in the face of the existential threat posed by a superpower, North Korea has come to believe that nuclear weapons are its only protection. The fate of Moammar Gaddafi, who had given up Libya’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for the lifting of American-led economic sanctions, is not lost on the North Korean. America’s conflicting goals have also complicated Beijing’s position. Nuclear weapons in North Korea are against China’s national security interests, for obvious reasons. But the collapse of the North Korean state as a result of regime change forced upon it from the outside would be equally catastrophic in China’s eyes. A refu­gee influx would wreck havoc in its northeastern provinces, depressing labor prices and quality of life. And Korean reunification on US and South Korean terms could result in American troops on its border, a situation Beijing would find intolerable in the long term. So for China, denuclearization cannot be obtained by means of regime change. This position is based solely on security interests and has nothing to do with a client state or ideology. The US has over the years leaned on China to exercise its leverage on North Korea. But previous negotiations ended in failure because what the North needs to give up its nuclear weapons – security – Beijing cannot give. Only Washington can give it.

    Today, Trump seems to be freeing the US from the neoconservative and liberal-interventionist policies of the past. For the first time in 16 years, the American side has come out and said rather unequivocally that the foremost priority is disarmament. “We do not seek regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula,” Tillerson told NPR. “We seek a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.” Now, the US and China have a shared objective without substantive contradictions. Trump has even said that he would be “honored” to meet with Kim Jong Un under the right circumstances. This may be the crucial difference that could breathe new life into the possibility of a negotiated settlement.

    In the end, the deal can only be that North Korea gives up its nuclear programs in exchange for assurances that it will not be attacked. Numerous uncertainties and risks would remain. How would we verify denuclearization? How could Pyongyang trust that Washington would honor a commitment not to pursue regime change later, as it did in Libya? Would China be willing to step in and fill the gap between the two parties’ promises? Because of the long-running hostilities and absence of trust, provocations such as missile tests or even nuclear tests can set this goal back. But the US and China finally have a clear path – pressuring North Korea from their respective directions to first halt its nuclear program and then negotiate its rollback in exchange for the survival of the state. And the unprecedentedly close working relationship between Trump and Xi on the Korean nuclear issue can help keep it moving forward. With Trump’s new approach, choosing one goal over the other, the US may finally get what it wants.

    But you will never know with a psycho like Trump. His behavior is like the equatorial climate in Malaysia – suddenly rain and suddenly sunshine. And he is a very impatient man and likes to dictate people how to do things. For peace to work Trump has to be very patient with Xi to let China do the work. Washington must negotiate with, not dictate to, Beijing if it hopes for Chinese cooperation. And that, in turn, requires a willingness to engage North Korea. Washington must be willing to give something in return. Success obviously is not assured, but failing to change policy almost certainly guarantees continued failure.
    LaMoy, let us hope you are right. Maybe it is time to stop threatening Young Kim and let him do his own thing as price for abandoning his nuclear program. Now that Trump is chummy, so he claims, to Putin and warm towards Xi, he maybe able to finally bring an end to the threat of nuclear war in the Korean Peninsular. –Din Merican

  3. Richard Clarke makes the most sense – Kim is not his father and he want something more than just to threaten and bomb the US and the world. The issue is getting down to what he wants and get it to him

  4. I would like to chip in with my own shallow armchair comments on this issue.

    As stated by LaMoy, the one redeeming quality of Trump is that he’s not a zealous ideological person. Psycotic, yes. Selfish and self-centred too, perhaps for America’s or even his own interests, but who isn’t?

    The only thing preventing the denuclerised Korean Peninsula is America’s constant threat of regime change towards the North Koreans. And the US is audacious (and naive? Haha) as to somehow expect the Chinese to help them do it?

    China definitely does not want a nuclear armed state, be it North or South Korea, or Japan in its doorstep. But short of toppling the Kim regime or staging an invasion of the North, China couldn’t really do anything. The above mentioned two actions although wouldn’t really threaten China’s long term national development (think America’s Civil War ultimately didn’t derail America’s rise either), but it will definitely cost it dearly, for a couple decades at least. Those are resourses better used for economic growth.

    But China’s greatest fear is a post-collapsed North Korea without any Chinese influence, especially an implied situation of a South, and therefore, American dominated unified peninsula. That would be China’s red line.

    A North Korean regime that is free from the threat of collapse may in turn feel safe enough to finally begin to have some form of economic reforms, following in China’s footsteps. I think this fact isn’t lost on America’s planners all along. The US realised that a properous North Korea would pratically render its continued occupation of South Korea (in war time, the US President assumes ultimate control over South Korean armed forces), in the pretense of protecting the South meaningless. Therefore, for as long as we can remember, the US contrived to ensure the constant tension on the Korean peninsula remains.

    This however, only works on the condition that North Korea holds no cards that could hurt US interests. Now, the North’s nuclear deterence programme is coming to fruition, with the capability of actually delivering warheads to US soil.

    Suddenly, America has two stark choices presented to it. One, to forcefully disable the North, or to eat humble pie and begin negotiations with them.

    If the US wants to go through the military route, it would have to be now, before NK can perfect its nuclear arsenal. But this will ultimately cross China’s aformentioned red line. In such a situation, it would be a new race to Pyongyang, a Korean War reboot. In this scenario, the North regime, facing eminent destruction, might even give in and cooperate with China, seen as the lesser of two evils. Who has the bigger political and mental will to secure the peninsula in this conflict, China or America? The cost of such a conflict would be totally devastating to all parties involved, especially for the South Koreans, who has everything to lose.

    If cool and respectful minds prevail, there would be new negotiations. In any denuclearisation agreements, depending on how much the North trust them, China could be the guarantor that America would not try anything funny, so that NK can denuclearise, and begin to embark on a period of normal nation building.

  5. Methinks everybody is tokking kok when it comes to Kim Jong-UnLand. Look, this ain’t no commie state nor any kind of modern nation that we understand. DPRK is best labelled as a Cult Mongrel State, where the Leader is elevated to an Omniscient and Omnipotent Deity. Kapish?

    Economic advancement? Well this weirdo murdered his uncle who was his second in command by making him (the uncle) run thru’ a gauntlet of artillery fire, then got rid of his step brother by VX’ing. The uncle was actually a favorite of PRC and was trying to build small scale industries and factories at the border with PRC before being blown to smithereens. The stepbrother who was a drone supposedly kept in reserve by PRC, but was ‘turned’ by the US.

    My gut feeling is that ‘someone’ has to take out Dear Cult Leader pronto with a surgical strike (if there were such a thing). DPRK despite it’s veneer of invincibility is like all cults – brittle, except for false pretensions. Decapitate then. However, the effort must be a combined US-PRC-Russian-S.Korean-Japanese black-ops effort. So the parties must sit down, plan and manage – to ensure post regime change stability. Easier said than done, but what’s the alternative?

    Nada. Which should actually suit US fine, in the larger scheme of things, as no one knows what devilry the Juvenile Delinquent is capable of. Forget about the paranoia, cuz that just falls into his trap.

    The US will have it’s THAAD fully operational soon while Russia has it’s Morpheus ABM (untested), but what does PRC have? Lots of cannon or nuclear fodder.

    I would rather the US normalize relations with IRAN. Did i hear gasps?

  6. CLF, Drumf should recall Rambo and let him loose in North Korea ha ha. But first CIA needs to kidnap a Rambo relative and tell Rambo that it was the work of Lil Kim.

    Or recruit the team of Mission Impossible with Tom Cruise and gang going in to snuff out Lil Kim and leaving no trace the team was ever there

    Get some Hollywood writers to write the script and let life imitate arts.

    • Rambo-Rocky to old-lah, buddy. Too much steroids pumped in, that his cojones have turned into grape seeds.

      Tom Cruise to much of a Scientologist and is himself a cultist. Stockholm Syndrome risk too great.

      So maybe Bean’s Maria Ozawa as the femme fatale? Heard she’s retired from Adult movies. She can use a blue ring octopus with loads of tetradotoxin – something in the mold of Bond’s Octopussy?

      I’ll leave the financing from Red Granite Films and the screenplay in your good hands. See whether you can interest Riza and Fei Chai Jlo. Of course, we shall try to avoid DoJ sanctions – better talk to bik Mama about that too.

  7. End the pointless provocative war games that only spur the North Koreans to further develop their deterrent. Withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea now. China withdrew its troops from the North, but the U.S. never reciprocated. If China saw the U.S. was out of the peninsula, they would be much more willing to put pressure on the North to disarm. As it is, the prospect of having U.S. troops on its border, only a few hundred miles from Beijing, ensures that they will do everything in their power to prevent Korean unification.

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