Date: April 28 – 2017


American Policymakers Delude Themselves Regarding North Korea: Why Engagement and Not Confrontation is the Only Rational Option

By: Nils G. Bildt

American pundits, politicians, policy makers and bureaucrats need an injection of reality regarding the DPRK, it would seem. As most rational thinkers on the subject would realize, there are few good options, however, confrontation is the least productive of them all. A “left of launch” strike on DPRK nuclear, or other assets, would be not only counterproductive, but could even be catastrophic for the entire region, never mind the civilian population of the DPRK.

While the Kim regime is reprehensible, it is not irrational nor interested self-immolation. It knows an attack on the ROK, Japan or US assets would mean the end of its regime. In fact, in light of current tensions on the region, it is showing that it can act with some restraint. Talk in Washington, about “reigning in” or even militarily striking the DPRK unless it augments its behavior is not only foolish, it is further compounding the problem and is making dialogue even harder. In short, the Trump administration is waking into its own “Discourse Trap”.

In reality, the regional nations, the US and indeed the world, has to realize that a nuclear armed DPRK is now a fact. A rational, albeit unfortunate, desire on part of the DPRK regime. Nothing we do will change this reality. What we can and should do however, is impact the further development, of DPRK ICBM/delivery vehicle technology. Although I fear we might be too late in this regard as well, at least as concerns weapons with regional reach.

In short, our policies and sanctions are counterproductive and we fail to think clearly about the interests and views of China in regards to the survival of the DPRK as a cohesive nation. Surely China is not particularly keen on the Kim regime, it does however, care about the survival of North Korea. China will not, under any conceivable circumstance, permit the collapse politically, or economically, of the DPRK and it will not permit – at least in the foreseeable future – the reunification of the two Koreas. While China can accept a political transition or political and economic change in the DPRK it will not accept the uncontrolled collapse of the regime, nor any political and societal mayhem that could result. Trump might think he has a good relationship with President Xi, but I assure you, this does not extend to China abandoning its own interests.

China will do what it needs to do, in order to keep the DPRK intact and functioning as a cohesive state. If this means keeping the Kim regime in place for now, then so be it. America (as well as Japan and the ROK) simply need to accept this reality. Short of a military strike to undermine or even take out the DPRK regime, the US has few options to compel any change in the current situation, and the options it is discussing, at least publicly, all seem half baked at best.

The political collapse of the DPRK could not only be a humanitarian catastrophe (25 million people, with potentially no access to electricity, food, medical supplies, etc.) but it would also mean economic upheaval for the region. The ROK could not politically – nor economically – manage such a situation. In fact, the ROK is one of the least responsible stakeholders in this entire situation, with little in way of planning - ROK thinking and reactions to developments in the DPRK tend to be both emotional as well as ill conceived. Japan, is a much more responsible partner and stakeholder, but due to the two Korea’s inability to deal with their historical legacies regarding Japan its options to help or act are constrained. Consequently, this means that any regime collapse or disintegration (a real possibility if the US were to strike the DPRK) would end up needing to be solved by China.

Such an outcome would be counter to long term US, ROK and Japanese interests, it would further undermine US credibility worldwide (as another example of thoughtless and irresponsible action leading to civil strife or conflict in the name of regime change). But perhaps most importantly, it would for the long term cement the Northern Korean peninsula as a vassal state of China. It would only further entrench Chinese economic dominance in the region, etc. It would also, most likely, bring Chinese troops right up to the 38th parallel (or DMZ). Putting Chinese troops within earshot of US and ROK troops and instead of eliminating a conflict zone, simply extending it. This in no way helps the US nor our allies’ interests. Further, it would inflame Korean national sensibilities, as the Chinese eventually would be seen as an occupying force, preventing the unification of the Korean peoples. China could be seen as the new occupying force – and the US would share responsibility for the situation. All this would inevitably hurt the ROK economy (and the Japanese economy) and alter the geographic and military realities on the ground, it would also undermine Japanese territorial and military security, further destabilizing the area.

As such, the only sensible option, in my opinion, is prompt economic engagement with the DPRK. Not only have sanctions not worked very well (I am however not advocating dropping all sanctions relating to its missile or nuclear development programs) but it has also made the nation dependent on China. As the DPRK economically progresses (which it is doing) and slowly becomes more dynamic why should we surrender a burgeoning economic market to the Chinese? Why should Western and Japanese firms not also engage? It would further seem that such economic engagement will only help bring about more rapid and socially productive change and reduce the risks for conflict.

The American debate often seems ignorant of the fact that the DPRK is not standing still economically, in fact it has changed quite a bit in the last few years, on my trips, in 2014 and again just this spring, there is a remarkable amount of new construction, increased traffic, availability of goods, etc. Some local traders are undoubtedly getting rich bringing all this material in from China. There is also palpable social change and things do seem less regimented, I even saw (and managed to get pictures of) graffiti in the Pyongyang subway. Such developments do speak volumes and I can only lament that the debate here in the US seems to miss the economic, geo-political, geographic and social nuances and realities, that in play. I can only hope that the US debate on the subject is broadened, to not only include think tank and policy folk, with vested interests or regimented views, but also people whom perhaps have deeper local knowledge and understanding, and what might perhaps be a more pragmatic and productive approach to ultimately changing the behavior of the regime in the DPRK and freeing its people.

Mr. Bildt is the President of CTSS Japan, a firm focusing on Information Aggregation and International Development and Construction solutions. He formerly served as Sr. Adviser to the Chairman of The Japanese Senate Foreign Relations and Defense Committee.

Note: Link to another good piece of work on thesubject: Insurgency in the DPRK? Post-regime Insurgency in Comparative Perspective