North Korea’s relentless pursuit of a comprehensive nuclear capability is ultimately based not on notions of deterrence, international esteem, or the establishment of future negotiating leverage, but on ideological imperatives critical to the regime’s very survival. Traditional diplomatic levers such as negotiations or sanctions will not deter Pyongyang’s quest to become a nuclear power and suzerain of the Korean Peninsula because its ideology makes it impervious to threats of counter-deterrence or pre-emption, denial of recognition as a nuclear state, or promises of economic concessions and security guarantees.
The best strategy for resolving this existential threat may be a long-term one that effectively bypasses the regime and seeks to win the hearts and minds of the North Korean people. The peril posed by North Korea’s heedless desire for irrevocable membership in the nuclear club will never recede, as long as the regime remains. Regime change, however, cannot be imposed; the people must rise. A revolution from within holds the most promise for a peaceful transition to eventual reunification of the peninsula. While the surreptitious seeds of dissent are increasingly being planted inside this garrison state, their growth and blossoming will require careful and committed nurturing for the indefinite future.
North Korea has been an ongoing seventy-year experiment in mass mind control. It is a nation-cult masquerading as a country in which a decades-long information vacuum has kept the system from falling apart under the centrifugal force of its own lunacy. Its pitiable people have been literally bred for generations by the North’s Suryong (Supreme Leader) system to see the Kim dynasty as their eternal protector against a dark, hostile world and a malevolent America. Yet, while most of the people’s loyalty to Kim Jong Un seems genuine, it rests on a foundation of lies. Until recent years, the regime had been quite successful in ensuring that the population was exposed to nothing that would contradict the narrative the government propagandists had painted since the end of the Korean War. It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to maintain this information cordon in the age of transportable digital media such as the quaint USB.
The United States should continue to explore every means of facilitating the soft infiltration of information into North Korea through conventional and unconventional methods. Totalitarianism’s enemy is curiosity because it is corrosive to its control over people’s lives. Curiosity leads to questions that can ultimately challenge the status quo. America needs to support all efforts to stoke the curiosity of the North Korean people for the world outside its closed society, in particular, the alien world of affluence and freedom in South Korea whose success has made it even more of a threat to the regime than the United States.
While the long-term focus of American foreign policy toward North Korea should be the exploitation of the growing underground movement of information inside the country, prioritizing an information war against the regime does not obviate the need to address the immediate threat posed by Kim Jong Un’s outsized nuclear aspirations. This is where direct negotiations with the regime to at least temporarily defer its nuclear progress may still prove fruitful, regardless of any propaganda value Pyongyang may extract.
Any hope for nuclear détente with North Korea rests first on the courage to redefine our interests in light of new facts on the ground. President Trump should direct his team to revisit the primary policy presumption that has undergirded our negotiating posture with the North Korean regime since the failure of the 1994 Agreed Framework: denuclearization as a precondition to direct negotiations on a peace treaty. Even the Obama administration’s recent attempt to soften the edges of that policy stance by discreetly decoupling denuclearization from the actual commencement of peace treaty discussions was rejected outright by Pyongyang because the White House still sought to make it Topic A of any negotiations.
President Trump should take the initiative of inviting North Korea to a series of bilateral (with South Korean cooperation), trilateral (with South Korean participation), or renewed six-party negotiations without precondition on a range of security issues, including the North’s nuclear threat. The political basis for a new peace push was previously established in the “2005 Joint Statement” from the dormant Six-Party talks which called for a “peace regime” that would eventually lead to a formal end to the Korean War. The new policy imperative that should now guide these discussions should be nuclear containment, not denuclearization.
We should also be clear-eyed about our objectives. The purpose of any renewed initiative on a peace and security deal would be to provide a framework for further talks that would hopefully forestall North Korea’s progress toward a comprehensive nuclear capability, while also calling Pyongyang’s bluff on its supposed desire for a peace treaty. No one, however, should be under any illusion that a treaty is something the Kim regime truly wants, as it would undermine the linchpin of its legitimacy as the North Korean people’s guardian against American invasion.
As for American domestic politics, it is a given that such a paradigm shift in our North Korea nuclear policy will be anathema to establishment hawks in Congress and policy groups. Yet, when the only change we can measure over decades of strategic engagement — and, more recently, “strategic patience” — are the ever-increasing number of nuclear bombs produced by the North and the think tank analysts assigned to try and count them, it is time to upend ossified notions about what is or is not tolerable to United States interests in East Asia vis-à-vis North Korea.
It is indeed past time for brittle doctrinal imperatives to give way to a more realpolitik approach to North Korea.