Reasons to Be Hopeful, and Not Hopeful, about North Korea

North Korean soldiers monitor activity at the truce village in Panmunjom in 2013. (Lee Jae-Won/Reuters)
It’s constrained practically to beg for money at the summit table, but the U.S. could push things to the point that a Sino–Russian alliance makes sense in East Asia.

There is nothing wrong with having two minds about an unfolding news event. Especially when it comes to events on the Korean Peninsula. The headline “President Moon Jae-in says President Donald Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize” is exactly the sort of current artifact that makes one long for the ability to fax a headline from the present day back to 1990, to warn people of just how odd the future has become. So let your head spin, like mine.

There are reasons to be hopeful when you see these unprecedented photographs and films coming out of the Korean summit. The last few months have seen an incredible change of posture by the two Koreas and the United States. Besides the sometimes hot-tempered tweeting of President Donald Trump, and the warmer relations from South Korea going back to the Olympic Games, there are internal pressures on the North Korean regime that may be pressuring it to the table.

Perhaps, most important, North Korea’s regime has almost lost its monopoly on information coming into the North Korean countryside. It isn’t just the official cultural exchanges either. South Korean Christian evangelists are broadcasting over the border. For years, people have been smuggling South Korean popular-culture products into North Korea, K-pop and K-drama. North Korean refugees report watching them to count the number and types of cars they can see, the appliances, or other pieces of evidence of the much richer life of their southern counterparts.

North Koreans who escape the regime are now far more confident that their outward defiance of the regime will not result in punishment to those left behind. The interview below, on the surprisingly essential YouTube channel Asian Boss, gives some of the flavor of this changed information environment. (Truly, I can’t think of another media outlet that does better North Korean coverage. Most others take an almost prurient and voyeuristic approach to North Korean tyranny.) North Koreans constantly access media from China and South Korea.

North Korea is experiencing some market-oriented reform of its command-and-control economy. This has been led by the black market, which started to grow after the famine-like conditions of the 1990s weakened the grip of the government on the economy outside Pyongyang, and it has only accelerated in recent years. There is a small, and resented, middle class emerging in North Korea. But the government itself may be running terribly short of money and having difficulty providing food to its dependents. From a positive perspective, North Korea’s recent dash to demonstrate its weapons capacity was a race against a clock: a last-ditch effort to reassure the North Koreans that the regime could make good on its promise of glory and competence, preventing a crisis of confidence in the regime. At the same time, having these weapons dramatically improves North Korea’s position at a diplomatic summit in which the regime must essentially beg for money to survive another day.

However, I wouldn’t disabuse anyone of their skepticism. Until North Korean prison camps begin to empty, until it gives real assurances about its weapons or gives other tangible concessions to the South Korean government, it is perfectly reasonable to see this Korean summit, and all the unprecedented diplomatic honors being extended to Kim Jong-un’s regime, as the prize for North Korea’s joining the small club of nations that can launch an ICBM.

Moon has a popularity rating hovering near 86 percent. He can afford to give Donald Trump the credit in the press, and is happy to do as some of his predecessors have done, which is a sign of meaningless promises of progress and peace with a North Korean regime that has no intention of abiding by any agreement. Moon gets credit for putting in the work and rakes in the support of his anxious people.

Young South Koreans are almost overwhelmingly against unification, seeing it as an immediate, perhaps mortal threat to their economic interests.

Kim may also be trying to play his best cards against an American president whom he perceives as amateurish and desperate for a major foreign-policy win. Trump has consistently signaled his distaste for America’s paternalistic military relationships in Europe and Asia. Though one expects America’s policy class to prevent the president from doing anything rash, Kim Jong-un may be happy to try and give Trump a reason to bring America’s role in the Korean war to a close. A fundamental disagreement along these lines could break up any three-country summit just after it begins.

Historically, what are seen as South Korean foreign-policy failures shift the political balance. When South Koreans feel that a sunshine policy is failing, they turn to harder-line conservative politicians. When there is no progress under those presidents, a change of strategy is called for again. A democratic people can be fickle. But the authoritarian North Korean regime continues to see some rewards for its stubbornness and deception.

If they ever lived, high hopes for denuclearization of the North probably died across the world in Libya. Iranian and North Korean leaders surely noticed that Libya’s welcome back into the international community was short-lived. After he gave up his weapons publicly, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s regime was far more vulnerable to internal rebellion. And once that internal rebellion began, Western powers wasted little time advancing past their mandate to protect civilian life and soon launched decapitation strikes at the regime. The lesson to rogue regimes is obvious. Giving up weapons of mass destruction means giving up a deterrent both to rebellion at home and to policies of regime change from abroad. These threats combined will surely lead to the death of your government, and likely your self.

And how far can the United States go to pressure the North Korean regime, politically or militarily? Trump’s new national-security adviser, John Bolton, has made stern demands that the North Korean regime denuclearize and offer to begin the process of reunification. If relations swing back quickly in the other direction, South Korea and Japan might not tolerate the anxiety and danger of renewed conflict with the North. Young South Koreans are almost overwhelmingly against unification, seeing it as an immediate, perhaps mortal threat to their economic interests.

Most important, the United States seems to have no firm grip on how China or Russia would respond to any revision of the status quo buffer state in North Korea, whether by putting the regime into a tailspin or by putting it on a path of reunification. North Korea’s borders extend close to emerging Chinese cities and vitally important Russian military installations. Would the United States ever push things to the point that a Sino–Russian alliance makes sense in East Asia? This is highly doubtful. Pushing it too far could make North Korea look like an important buffer state to the United States, useful for keeping rivals away from our own East Asian friends and allies.

Both my emotional and my intellectual disposition prejudice me toward the more pessimistic and cynical view of unfolding events. And toward a prediction that any coming deal that is hailed in Washington will turn out to be a hollow victory and in fact advance the Korean Peninsula to a political situation in which the North (with China) is in a stronger position to absorb the South than vice versa.

But I know after the last several years that we need to be open to an upside in every story. If the Trump presidency is an escape of reality-TV culture into Reality itself, this is by far the most dramatic and dangerous development. I’ll continue to watch with two minds.

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