Confronting North Korea: A War of the Will

By Soo Kim

Soo Kim is a former CIA intelligence analyst and linguist, specializing in East Asia, propaganda, and leadership studies. She was recently a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

As the incoming administration continues to define its contours, and as President-elect Donald Trump begins to outline a foreign policy strategy for the next four years, it’s worth reassessing the U.S.  approach toward one of Washington’s persistent challenges: North Korea.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration named the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as a top national security priority for the new presidential team, citing Pyongyang’s advancing nuclear and missile threat capabilities and increasing instability among the nations dealing with the Kim regime as complicating factors. Advanced weapons capabilities aside, the difficulty in reading the DPRK and its leadership’s intentions also make the country a great challenge for Washington.

Suffice to say that with every new presidential administration, we’re cautiously optimistic for policies that may incrementally change the course in North Korea’s behavior. But hopes are quickly dashed when the new administration reshuffles policies to align with a new set of priorities. These new policies often break from the previous administration’s policy line, undoing the progress achieved, or run counter to pursuing a continual, coordinated multilateral strategy on the DPRK.

The key to dealing with North Korea is in fully understanding the country and its modus operandi. Progress in our handling of the Kim regime resides in two foundational points:  

  • Dealing with North Korea is essentially a war of the will. Most, if not all, foreign policy challenges require knowing the leadership of the country in question. This applies especially to North Korea, where the cult of personality of the three Kims is the defining characteristic of the country. Grandpa, father, and now grandson Kim all have distinct personalities, each crafted to instill fear, adoration, or obedience among the North Korean population and project a certain image to the external world. Kim Jong-un has his circle of advisors and cronies propping up his power and financial base; his leadership style is markedly different from that of his father, Kim Jong Il. But personality differences aside, we are still dealing with a top-down, insular, one-man dictatorship, where final authority on key decisions hinges upon the Dear Leader’s whims.

    The U.S., South Korea, and other like-minded countries have been dealing with three generations of the Kim dynasty. To understand the country – cracking the North Korea nut, in essence – means fully understanding the mindset of the Kim leadership. We should take great effort to study Kim Jong-un and his inner circle. Kim’s upbringing, biographical and familial facts, and other hard data are important pieces of information, obviously, but how well do we really know our North Korean counterparts? What are Kim’s vulnerabilities – physical, relational, policy-pertinent – and what are our strategies to maximize our capabilities against such?

  • Fight the war with North Korea with a long-term outlook. Let’s face it, our North Korea policy flip-flops with every administration changeover results in the failure to establish any consistency in the collective approach toward Pyongyang. This is not a criticism as much as it is an observation of the way policies work in the vast majority of the world.

    In most other countries – let’s take the United States and South Korea as examples – leaders come and go after one or two terms in office. And with each new administration comes a new team of policy handlers, policies, and measures – a “clean slate,” per se—for North Korea to muddy up.

    In the case of South Korea, Pyongyang enjoyed a period of warmth during the Sunshine policies of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, followed by the more hardline policies of the Lee Myung-bak and the current Park Geun-hye presidencies. The lack of continuity and inconsistency in our approach with North Korea frustrates many policy experts and academics: just when we are about to make progress with the Kim regime, it’s time for the incumbent administration to pack up and usher in a new team of experts.

    North Korea has already factored this into its foreign policy calculus and cycle of behavior, hence its provocations and intransigence in the face of any opportunities to cooperate or make concessions to Washington, Seoul, and other regional players. Our inconsistency, lack of continuity, and inability to establish a coordinated, cooperative multi-national unit to deal with Pyongyang puts the Kim regime at a significant advantage in its confrontation with the external world.

    North Korea has been pursuing a fairly steady track: under no conditions will the Kim regime surrender its nuclear arsenal to the international community. A nuclear-armed North Korea has been and will be the regime’s survivability and identity. Pyongyang has been pursuing this path for decades, whereas the U.S., South Korea, and regional players have gotten derailed with leadership changes in their respective governments. This places us at a severe disadvantage in terms of establishing any continuity or progress on North Korea.

Thus, we should ask ourselves, what is our objective with North Korea both in the short- and long-term?   We should take a farsighted approach with the DPRK. This is how the Kim regime is handling the U.S., South Korea, and the international community. The North Korea dilemma clearly is not a puzzle to be solved overnight. It’s a test of our endurance, a marathon to be won.

As tempting as it may be, particularly in situations when the North appears to want to engage or negotiations are going nowhere such that we need to give more to bring Pyongyang to the bargaining table, we should make our policy responses less predictable for our North Korean counterparts. Talks with North Korea have taken on a very familiar pattern. Too often, South Korean and U.S. administrations wear their policy objectives on their sleeves, making it very easy for the DPRK to calibrate provocations or extort political and economic concessions.

Furthermore, a series of small victories might be more effective and a “faster” route to a successful outcome.  And we can afford to take some small losses against the North, so long as we are tracking with our long-term objectives.

Finally, the new administration should work with the parties who have major stakes in the North Korea game –South Korea, Japan, China, Russia—to come up with a coordinated, cohesive approach toward the Kim regime. With as many as five countries trying to solve the North Korea puzzle in pursuit of their respective policy agendas, consensus-building on one of the most slippery, sensitive security challenges in Northeast Asia is in and of itself a nightmare. But the DPRK challenge has been a persistent threat to global security and stability for decades; arriving at a progressive, constructive solution to this global problem requires the parties to set North Korea as a high-priority challenge to tackle at the national, regional, and international levels. 

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