Want success? Think about the unthinkable first
Let me tell you my conclusion by trying to think the unthinkable: if the United States, South Korea, Japan, China, and the rest of the world want North Korea to denuclearize, they must be prepared to give Kim Jong-un what he wants most – security for himself and his regime.
Nuclear weapons are, in Kim’s mind, a means of security for the regime, not an end in themselves. Therefore, if his regime becomes safer without nuclear weapons than with them – in North Korean terminology, the outside world’s “hostility” to Kim ceases – he can denuclearize.
I hear the chorus. But, but, Kim is a dictator and his regime is heinous. We must force him to denuclearize and we must force him to respect human rights more. It is true that his regime is heinous, but whatever, the point is that there is no way to force him to denuclearize, or to give more respect to human rights for that matter. “Forcing Kim” is the senseless action that follows refusing to think the unthinkable. Round and round we will go without thinking and never get anywhere. And will human rights improve further under a precarious regime, or a secure regime more tied to the outside world?
Let’s look at what Kim wants and what we want, and think about if there’s a way for him to get what he wants, and us to get what we want – even if we have to think about the unthinkable. along the way.
Let’s start by sympathizing with Kim’s situation. He received a weak hand. It is by far the smallest, poorest and least loved country in Northeast Asia. Kim faces four existential threats to his regime – in the truest sense of the word, the end of his regime’s existence.
First, and always, China. Chinese authoritarianism and Korean piquancy date back thousands of years. The saying goes that when the door is opened Pyongyang curses America; but when it is closed, it curses China. China would love a flexible North Korea that is de facto a Chinese province. North Korea may long ago have inextricably linked its economy to that of China and become a relatively prosperous economic appendage. But with economic integration would come political “advice” that could not be ignored. China is a sanctions relief valve since it can keep North Korea on life support for as long as it wants, but it’s also an existential danger if the addiction becomes permanent.
Second, the domestic threat. A blow? Widespread unrest if the economy totally collapses? Or, conversely, a deep disappointment following the rise in expectations? Even a totalitarian regime like Kim’s cannot rely solely on the brutality of the secret police; it also needs a success story that creates at least a minimum of loyalty and voluntary compliance.
Third, the United States, a constant military threat. And, as the North Koreans say, always urging the “international cooperation system” to “strangle” North Korea, at the UN and through international sanctions.
Fourth, the complex sociological and psychological, and even military, threat from South Korea. The old propaganda that the North was prosperous and self-sufficient while Southerners starved and slaves to the Yankees has long been shattered. The siren song of the absorption of the South has arisen in the minds of people, both North and South.
Kim is stuck in an endless game of juggling the four existential threats. The one he is closest to falling to the ground on is the one he needs to focus on next. Nuclear weapons are a way to give Kim some leeway to face his threats. But they bring as many new problems as they solve old ones. And none of its threats are permanently suppressed by its nuclear weapons.
What conclusions might we draw if we examine what we want and what Kim wants, and how to achieve it – including being able to think about what is unthinkable and break out of a circle of mindless action?
I offer five conclusions:
First, it will require a long-term commitment, over years, decades. It cannot be in spurts. And he must remain rigidly on target – the security of the Kim regime in exchange for denuclearization and cooperation that bolsters peninsular and regional security.
Second, whatever process evolves, whether it be the implementation of a grand comprehensive ‘deal’ or a series of interconnected progressive agreements, the ultimate denuclearization of North Korea will be at stake. the end, not in the foreground. Kim will want to hold onto some capacity until he’s made sure he’s better off in the New World than in a nuclear stalemate.
Third, the process of coordinating the negotiating positions of the United States and South Korea vis-à-vis North Korea, with presidential elections every few years bringing new administrations into one or the other. other country, is too heavy. Someone has to be the one leader the North can believe is a reliable partner, devising a long-term strategy that the North can accept. It must be Seoul. And Seoul must have the power to modulate sanctions, relax or remove them as it deems necessary. The United States and the international community must be persuaded that they trust Seoul to be the main interlocutor with the North.
Fourth, Kim and the North must be convinced that Seoul is the best partner to face their four existential threats. South Korea can contribute to economic development and diversification that end dependence on China and make civil strife due to deprivation unlikely. South Korea can be the brake on any American military adventurism. Seoul can use its status to pave the way for North Korea’s greater acceptance on the international stage. Seoul can declare a policy of non-absorption and only mutually agreed upon reunification when the time comes.
Fifth, before the North-South can make any real progress, there must be a “South-South”. That was excellent advice from Volker Ruehe, one of the architects of German reunification, when he addressed the Pacific Century Institute at its 25th anniversary dinner. The key to German unification was when the Progressive and Conservative parties agreed on “Ostpolitik”, according to which West Germany would pursue a policy of magnanimity towards the East, regardless of the party. in power, so that the East can feel secure in the face of the West without fear of constant political about-faces. When the time came, German unification did not come about by force, but by choice. The next South Korean president must be the “South-South” president, forging a lasting bipartisan politics that can withstand election flip-flops.
The next president of South Korea, whoever he may be, will have a great task facing the North and the “South”. Hard? Yes. But I believe that if he is prepared to think of the unthinkable, he can break free from the absurdity that passes for action but keeps Korea frozen in inaction.
Spencer H. Kim
Spencer H. Kim is CEO of CBOL Corp., a California aerospace company. He is co-founder of the Pacific Century Institute and a member of the American Council on Foreign Relations. He was appointed by President George W. Bush to represent the United States on the 2006-08 APEC Business Advisory Council. He was a resident researcher at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation 2012-13 at Harvard. – Ed.
By Korea Herald ([email protected])