North Korea Thought

by Reihan Salam

During my recent visit to Seoul, I had a number of conversations with political insiders about the prospect of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. One of my interlocutors, who has been working on inter-Korean issues for decades, advanced an interesting, and encouraging thesis. But before I get to his thesis, I’ll first share the following from the One Free Korea blog:

As policymakers craft their sanctions, however, they shouldn’t lose sight of the objective — to change North Korea.  The U.S. Army isn’t going to do that, and Kim Jong Un certainly won’t.  The only people who are going to get us out of this mess are the North Koreans themselves.  They, not Kim Jong Il, are the ones we should have spent the last decade trying to “engage.” Both Republicans and Democrats tend to lose sight of this key distinction between the North Korean regime, and the more-or-less expendable 98% of its population we need to reach.  (Sure, the “core” class is estimated to be around 20-30%, but anyone can be excommunicated from it at a moment’s notice.) The majority of North Koreans had to be taught to hate us, but they learned to hate their government on their own.  That means there’s a common interest we can appeal to. [Emphasis added]

This is perfectly sensible advice. Yet OFK parts company with my interlocutor in that my interlocutor believes that North Korea’s decision to declare itself a nuclear weapons state is actually a prelude to an opening. Nuclearization will create the impression that the decision to, for example, expand limited experiments in economic openness like the Kaesong Industrial Region is happening not from a place of weakness, but rather from (relative) strength. The regime will have demonstrated its robustness, perhaps to constituencies within the North Korean power elite more than to the international audience, and this matters because the North Korean leadership is intensely xenophobic and paranoid. Think about it: if you’re constantly worried about foreign infiltrators and the obliteration of your state, you’re not likely to want to open up your society to the potential for subversion and who knows what else. With a nuclear weapon in your back pocket, you can, in theory at least, ease up a bit. 

I wouldn’t bet the farm on this outcome, and it may well represent wishful thinking. But my interlocutor is a hard-nosed observer of North Korea’s periodic freakouts over the past several decades and I’m inclined to trust his judgment. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.