Think Again: North Korea

North Korea is a lot more dangerous than you think, but that doesn't mean that Kim Jong Un is insane.

By , the Maria Crutcher professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, and , a senior fellow in the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, a professor at Georgetown University, and the former National Security Council director for Asian affairs.

“North Korea’s not that dangerous.”

Wrong. There is no threat of war on the Korean peninsula because the United States and South Korea have deterred the regime for over six decades, or so the thinking goes. And the occasional provocation from Pyongyang — full of sound and fury — usually ends with it blowing up in its face, signifying nothing. So why worry? Two reasons. First, North Korea has a penchant for testing new South Korean presidents. A new one was just inaugurated in February, and since 1992, the North has welcomed these five new leaders by disturbing the peace. Whether in the form of missile launches, submarine incursions, or naval clashes, these North Korean provocations were met by each newly elected South Korean president with patience rather than pique.

The difference today is that South Korea is no longer turning the other cheek. After the North blew up the South Korean navy ship the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors in 2010, Seoul re-wrote the rules of military engagement. It has lost patience and will respond kinetically to any provocation, which could escalate into a larger conflict. Second, North Korea crossed a major technology threshold in December, when it successfully launched a satellite into orbit. Though the satellite later malfunctioned, the North managed to put the payload into orbit with ballistic missile launch technology that is clearly designed to reach the United States.

This development appears to validate former U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates’s January 2011 claim that the regime was only five years away from fielding a missile that could threaten the continental United States. To make matters worse, Pyongyang conducted a third nuclear test in February, which appears to have been more successful than the previous two. Within President Barack Obama’s second term in office, North Korea could well be the third nation (after Russia and China) to field a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile targeted at the United States. Moreover, the North has sold every weapons system it has developed to the likes of Iran, Pakistan, and Syria. That’s worth losing sleep over.

But there’s another point that is often overlooked: North Korea today can threaten all of South Korea and parts of Japan with its conventional missiles and its conventional military. The North can fire 500,000 rounds of artillery on Seoul in the first hour of a conflict. Stability has held for 60 years because the U.S. security alliances with South Korea and Japan make it clear to the North Korean leadership that if they attacked South Korea or Japan, they would lose both the war and their country. And, for half a century, neither side believed that the benefits of starting a major war outweighed the costs. The worry is that the new North Korean leader might not hold to the same logic, given his youth and inexperience.

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“Kim Jong Un is insane.”

Don’t bet on it. It was easy to make fun of his father, Kim Jong Il, with his bouffant hairstyle, awkward social skills, and dislike of public events. Kim Jong Il was clearly an introvert, and an odd one at that. But most politicians are extroverts — they love a crowd and love attention, and Kim Jong Un fits the profile: he has a pretty young wife, likes to appear in public and give speeches, he watches basketball games, and visits amusement parks. Much of his behavior may be political theater aimed at convincing his own people that the young general is comfortably in charge, but it is also a contrast with his father’s ruling style. Kim Jong Il paid no attention to the public aspect of ruling, whereas his son’s visibility and embrace of popular culture appears to be aimed at convincing North Koreans that changes may actually occur under him.

Authoritarian rulers don’t long survive if they’re truly out of touch with reality. They need to read palace politics, reward friends and punish enemies, and manage competing interests that are vying for power. Kim Jong Il lasted from 1994 until his death in December 2011 without any obvious internal challenge to his rule, a mark of his political acumen and mastery of factional politics. Although Kim Jong Un is inexperienced, he has held power for over a year and appears to have the acquiescence — for now — of the most powerful actors in Pyongyang.

More important than asking whether Kim Jong Un is insane is determining whether he is cautious or a risk-taker. Any major shift in North Korean foreign policy will involve enormous hazards. If Kim moves beyond the political theater of the past 60 years — chest-thumping, name-calling, threatening to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” — and actually risks a major military strike against South Korea or even the United States, he is putting his own neck, as well as his country’s, on the line.

Kim faces just as many risks if he meaningfully reforms domestic, economic, or social policy. Even within a totalitarian dictatorship, there are different factions, coalitions, and bureaucratic interests that will be injured by any change in the status quo. Economic reforms, for example, may ultimately help the country but will risk chaos in the markets, weaken powerful stakeholders within the vast bureaucracy, and potentially unleash rising expectations from the general public.

An adventurous Kim Jong Un may or may not be good for North Korea and its relations with the outside world. On the other hand, a cautious Kim, who simply pursues the status quo, would mean that North Korean policy will muddle along, with no real change to the frustrating, dangerous, decades-long game of brinksmanship.

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“North Korea is poor because sanctions are working.”

Not even close. North Korea is poor because of an outmoded economic policy and self-imposed isolation from the world. The latest round of U.N. and U.S. sanctions, implemented in March, only target the elite. They ban the export of luxury goods and clamp down on individuals and companies that are financing proliferation activities. It’s safe to say that the average North Korean does not own a yacht or wear a Rolex.

Blame lies with five bad decisions North Korea has made in the management of its economy. First, in the aftermath of the Korean War, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather — President Kim Il Sung — focused exclusively on heavy industry development and the military while expecting the country to be self-sufficient in agriculture. In a country that only has 20 percent arable land, that was a huge mistake. Second, rather than seek technologies and innovations like the Green Revolution that helped nations like India make enormous gains in agricultural productivi
ty in the 1960s and 1970s, the North tried to substitute longer work hours and revolutionary zeal. Given the broken infrastructure, this was like squeezing blood from a stone. Third, rather than trade with the outside world, the North went deeply into debt in the 1970s, borrowing and then defaulting on hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from European countries, which forever lost them lines of credit with any country or international financial institution. Fourth, in the 1980s and 1990s, the North undertook extremely wasteful mega-projects, building stadiums, hydropower projects, and tideland reclamation projects — most of which failed or were never completed. Finally, after the Chinese and Soviets stopping giving aid to the North at the end of the Cold War, Pyongyang relied on humanitarian assistance as a form of income, instead of trying to fix their economy.

One could not have imagined a worse economic plan. This country has allowed an ideology that prizes autarky to dictate economic decisions rather than taking advantage of the benefits of trade, technology, or innovation — which is why North Korea is one of the only countries in the world to have suffered a famine after industrialization.

Chung Sun-Jun/Getty Images

“China won’t let North Korea collapse.”

For now. Maintaining a close relationship with Pyongyang can be very frustrating for Beijing, and Chinese support for the latest round of U.N. sanctions was a public rebuke. The Chinese leadership has consistently urged its North Korean counterparts to reform its economy, yet Pyongyang just as consistently ignores Beijing’s advice. Although there is an increasingly vociferous public debate within China over what to do with its maverick neighbor, the Chinese leadership has so far continued to conclude that propping up North Korea is better than withdrawing its support.

The relationship might not be strong, but it remains. China is North Korea’s major trading partner and provides most of the Hermit Kingdom’s energy needs; moreover, it has never seriously implemented any of the four rounds of sanctions the U.N. has passed targeting North Korea. Although it agreed to the most recent U.N. resolution, China would actually have to substantially change its approach to Pyongyang to make the sanctions work, and it probably won’t.

China has more influence over North Korea than any other country, but less influence than outsiders think. Beijing-Pyongyang relations haven’t been warm ever since China normalized relations with South Korea over 20 years ago, and both sides resent the other. But Beijing has few options. Completely isolating Pyongyang and withdrawing economic and political support could lead to regime collapse, sending a flood of North Korean refugees across the border, and potentially drawing all the surrounding countries into conflict with each other — which could see the devastating use of nuclear weapons. And China fears that any conflict, or a collapse, could put South Korean or even U.S. troops on its eastern border. As a result, Beijing — much like Washington — is faced with the choices of rhetorical pressure, quiet diplomacy, and mild sanctions. As long as China continues to value stability on the peninsula more than it worries about a few nuclear weapons, it will not fundamentally change its policy towards its unruly neighbor.


“Enough carrots can make North Korea give up their nukes for good.”

If only it were that easy. Since Ronald Reagan’s time in office, successive U.S. administrations have put forward the idea that if insecurity and relative deprivation drive North Korea’s obsession with nuclear weapons, then surely the answer is for the United States and neighboring countries to guarantee a peaceful peninsula, and provide money, food, and political recognition to the regime. This has been the basis of the agreements reached with North Korea in 1994 under Bill Clinton and in 2005 under George W. Bush. From 1989 to 2010, U.S. presidents, their national security advisors, and secretaries of state have given written and verbal assurances of non-hostile intent and a willingness to engage to the North over 33 times. Pyongyang acknowledged, rejected, and ignored these assurances, all the while continuing with their nuclear and weapons programs. In fact, the record of U.S. engagement is pretty impressive. In addition to massive amounts of food, energy, and other economic assistance given over a period from 1994 to 2008, two former U.S. presidents (Clinton and Carter) have visited with the North Korean leadership to express U.S. good intentions, as have (in less formal contexts) the New York Philharmonic, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, and of course Dennis Rodman. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have each written personal letters directly to the North Korean leader about a willingness to make a deal. And when North Koreans have visited the United States, they have been hosted by everyone from Gov. Bill Richardson to Henry Kissinger, and been given the company of luminaries such as Paul Volcker, Winston Lord, and Bob Hormats.

Clearly, this charm offensive hasn’t worked. Signing a peace treaty in advance of denuclearization would recognize and legitimize Pyongyang’s nuclear status, leaving it little incentive to shed those weapons. North Koreans have said to me that a peace treaty is just a piece of paper; why would they give up their cherished nuclear program for that?

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David Kang is the Maria Crutcher professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and a nonresident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Victor Cha is a senior fellow in the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, a professor at Georgetown University, and the former National Security Council director for Asian affairs. Twitter: @VictorDCha

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