If Nixon Went to China, Trump Can Go to North Korea

As a candidate, Trump promised a new policy toward North Korea—but now he’s beating the drums of war.

John Feffer August 23, 2017

By continuing to isolate an already isolated land, the United States is only strengthening the very wall against which it’s been banging its head for so many years. (South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images)

This piece first appeared at TomDis​patch​.com.

Despite all their promises to overhaul North Korea policy, Trump's top officials have closely followed the same headache-inducing pattern as their predecessors.

The Unit­ed States has beat­en its head against the wall of North Korea for more than 70 years, and that wall has changed lit­tle indeed as a result. The Unit­ed States, mean­while, has suf­fered one headache after another.

Over the last sev­er­al weeks, the head bang­ing has inten­si­fied. North Korea has test­ed a cou­ple of pos­si­ble inter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles. In response, Don­ald Trump has threat­ened that coun­try with fire and fury,” one-upping the rhetoric com­ing out of Pyongyang. And North Kore­an leader Kim Jong-un is debat­ing whether to fire a mis­sile or two into the waters around the Amer­i­can island of Guam as a warn­ing of what his coun­try is capa­ble of doing.

Ignore, for the moment, Trump’s off-the-cuff bel­liger­ence. Despite all their promis­es to over­haul North Korea pol­i­cy, his top offi­cials have close­ly fol­lowed the same headache-induc­ing pat­tern as their predecessors.

Threat­en that all options are on the table? Check.

Apply more sanc­tions, even tighter ones, fiercer inter­na­tion­al ones? Check.

Try to twist China’s arm to rein in its erst­while ally? Check.

As Trump flirts with the same default posi­tion of strate­gic patience” adopt­ed by the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, two oth­er options beck­on: talk or attack.

So far, the prospects for nego­ti­a­tions have been rather dim. True, Trump has direct­ed some back­hand­ed com­pli­ments at Kim Jong-un (a smart cook­ie”) and broached the pos­si­bil­i­ty of talk­ing per­son-to-per­son with the North Kore­an leader. Backchan­nel dis­cus­sions with that country’s U.N. mis­sion in New York have made mod­est head­way over the last sev­er­al months on issues like the deten­tion of Amer­i­can cit­i­zens. But Pres­i­dent Trump is, by nature, errat­ic, and a pur­pose­ful­ly under­staffed State Depart­ment and dis­tinct­ly under-informed Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil are not exact­ly fir­ing on all diplo­mat­ic cylinders.

Then, of course, there’s the oth­er alter­na­tive (an option also con­sid­ered by pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tions): launch­ing a more con­cert­ed effort at régime change. That approach clear­ly has some trac­tion both with the impetu­ous man in the Oval Office and with­in his admin­is­tra­tion. CIA chief Mike Pom­peo has, for instance, spo­ken of an imper­a­tive to sep­a­rate” the régime from its nuclear weapons (and he didn’t mean through nego­ti­a­tions). Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advi­sor Gen­er­al H.R. McMas­ter has open­ly dis­cussed a pre­ven­tive war” option against North Korea that sounds omi­nous­ly like what the Unit­ed States had in place for Iraq back in 2003. U.S. Ambas­sador to the Unit­ed Nations Nik­ki Haley even declared at one point that the time for talk is over.” (Pre­sum­ably she meant the time for talk with, not at, since Don­ald Trump con­tin­ues to excel at the latter.)

The fever dream of régime change has per­sist­ed in Wash­ing­ton for decades like a bad case of polit­i­cal malar­ia that repeat­ed dos­es of real­ism have nev­er quite erad­i­cat­ed. The irony is that North Korea is indeed chang­ing, just not in response to what the Unit­ed States is doing. As with Chi­na in the 1970s, Wash­ing­ton could encour­age those changes by giv­ing up its aggres­sive ambi­tions, step­ping away from the luke­warm option of strate­gic patience,” and actu­al­ly sit­ting down to talk seri­ous­ly with Pyongyang with­out preconditions.

Lest you think it’s too late for nego­ti­a­tions, remem­ber that the U.S. was on the verge of bomb­ing Pyongyang in 1994 just before Jim­my Carter went to North Korea and nego­ti­at­ed what would even­tu­al­ly become an agree­ment to freeze the country’s nuclear pro­gram. (Yes, once upon a time at least, the Kim fam­i­ly was will­ing to put that pro­gram on hold.) Maybe it’s the moment for the pur­port­ed adults” in the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to per­suade the pres­i­dent to refo­cus on his golf game, while some qui­et diplo­ma­cy gets under way.

Only then will Amer­i­cans get what Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son assures us is our birthright: a good night’s sleep.

The Dan­gers of Régime Change

Cuba had a dis­grun­tled for­mer elite. Iraq had its rebel­lious Shi­ites and Kurds. Libya had the unset­tling tail­wind of the Arab Spring, not to men­tion a whole lot of peo­ple who deeply hat­ed its rul­ing auto­crat Muam­mar Gaddafi.

North Korea has nothing.

Unlike those oth­er tar­gets of régime change, North Korea lacks any sig­nif­i­cant domes­tic oppo­si­tion that could — at least in Washington’s ver­sion of a dream world — rush into a new­ly cre­at­ed vac­u­um of author­i­ty and set up a more Amer­i­ca-friend­ly gov­ern­ment. Indeed, North Korea is a ver­i­ta­ble desert of civ­il soci­ety. For­get oppo­si­tion par­ties and non­govern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions. It doesn’t even have a few coura­geous fig­ures like Russ­ian nuclear physi­cist Andrei Sakharov or Czech play­wright Vaclav Hav­el, who open­ly dis­sent­ed from their government’s poli­cies dur­ing the Cold War.

The only con­ceiv­able alter­na­tive to Kim Jong-un at the moment might be the North Kore­an mil­i­tary, the sole insti­tu­tion with suf­fi­cient author­i­ty to nudge aside the rul­ing Work­ers Par­ty. But it’s not clear that there’s any gen­uine day­light between the Kim fam­i­ly and that mil­i­tary. More­over, were the gen­er­als to take over, they might prove more hos­tile toward out­side pow­ers and even more deter­mined in their oppo­si­tion to domes­tic reform than the cur­rent leadership.

In Cuba, Iraq, and Libya, the Unit­ed States imag­ined that régime change would flow from the bar­rel of a gun — from, to be exact, the guns of the U.S. mil­i­tary and its para­mil­i­tary allies on the ground. How­ev­er, with North Korea, even the most die-hard régime-change enthu­si­asts, like con­ser­v­a­tive New York Times colum­nist Bret Stephens, are aware of the poten­tial­ly dis­as­trous con­se­quences of a U.S. strike.

Pyongyang has a dis­persed nuclear com­plex, as well as mobile mis­sile launch­ers and sub­marines. Its deeply entrenched artillery and rock­et posi­tions near the Demil­i­ta­rized Zone, long pre­pared, could dev­as­tate the South Kore­an cap­i­tal, Seoul, only 35 miles from the bor­der, and the 25 mil­lion inhab­i­tants in its met­ro­pol­i­tan area. If Wash­ing­ton struck pre­emp­tive­ly, the Chi­nese have been very clear that they would sup­port the North Kore­ans, which could raise a grim and poten­tial­ly dev­as­tat­ing region­al war to the lev­el of a super­pow­er conflict.

No mat­ter how it played out, this would be no cake­walk” (to use a word once asso­ci­at­ed with the 2003 inva­sion of Iraq). Hun­dreds of thou­sands, if not mil­lions, of peo­ple — North Kore­ans, South Kore­ans, Japan­ese, even U.S. sol­diers and civil­ians — would be at risk. For­mer Sec­re­tary of Defense William Per­ry, who con­sid­ered the option of a pre­emp­tive strike dur­ing the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion, now insists that, whether or not this was a good idea in those days, I am per­suad­ed, I am con­vinced it’s not a good idea today.”

For all these rea­sons, the top offi­cials in the Pen­ta­gon have been risk-averse in dis­cussing mil­i­tary sce­nar­ios, with Sec­re­tary of Defense James Mat­tis por­tray­ing the con­se­quences of war in the region as cat­a­stroph­ic” and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dun­ford acknowl­edg­ingthat a mil­i­tary solu­tion would be hor­rif­ic.” In fact, the Trump administration’s strate­gic review of North Korea pol­i­cy explic­it­ly advised against any mil­i­tary option, pre­fer­ring instead to go with max­i­mum pres­sure and engagement.”

In the back of any régime-changer’s mind has to be a sin­gle obvi­ous sce­nario: a replay of Germany’s 1990 reuni­fi­ca­tion in which South Korea swal­lows the North in a sin­gle gulp. As it hap­pens, how­ev­er, South Korea has shown lit­tle inter­est in copy­ing the Ger­man exam­ple, cer­tain­ly not under the lead­er­ship of its new pro­gres­sive pres­i­dent, Moon Jae-In. The cur­rent gov­ern­ment has, in fact, explic­it­ly reject­ed any war on the Kore­an penin­su­la. Moon instead favors the sort of increased eco­nom­ic and social engage­ment with the North that might some­day lead to some kind of slow-motion reuni­fi­ca­tion rather than an overnight absorp­tion of that coun­try (which would also hor­ri­fy the Chinese).

Such régime-change sce­nar­ios always over­look the deeply felt nation­al­ism of most North Kore­ans. They may not like Kim Jong-un or have much faith in the gov­ern­ment, but decades of nation­al­ist edu­ca­tion and pro­pa­gan­da have turned that country’s cit­i­zens into true believ­ers in the North’s right to inde­pen­dence and self-deter­mi­na­tion. Vir­tu­al­ly every­one there has served in the mil­i­tary, and there can be lit­tle doubt that the pop­u­la­tion is ready to fight to defend their home­land against out­side aggres­sors. As in Cuba cir­ca 1961, régime-change efforts in North Korea already have the stink of fail­ure to them.

And even were such efforts to suc­ceed, with a cat­a­stroph­ic region­al war some­how being avert­ed, the results would undoubt­ed­ly rival the cat­a­clysms that engulfed Bagh­dad in 2003 and Tripoli in 2011. Mil­lions of North Kore­ans would poten­tial­ly stream across the bor­ders of both Chi­na and South Korea, cre­at­ing a mas­sive refugee cri­sis. The economies of north­east Asia would take a major hit, which might send glob­al mar­kets into a tail­spin. And don’t for­get North Korea’s nuclear weapons and mate­r­i­al, which could elude the search-and-secure efforts of U.S. and South Kore­an Spe­cial Forces and fall into the hands of who knows whom.

You’d think that the exam­ples of Cuba, Iraq, and Libya — not to men­tion Afghanistan, Syr­ia, and Yemen — would have cured Washington’s régime-change enthu­si­asts of their recur­ring illu­sions. But no such luck, espe­cial­ly since those hawks deeply believe that any nego­ti­a­tions with North Korea will prove utter­ly futile, mere­ly allow­ing that coun­try to fur­ther strength­en its nuclear program.

His­to­ry, how­ev­er, does not bear out that par­tic­u­lar prejudice.

Nego­ti­at­ing with Crazy

If you think North Korea is too crazy to nego­ti­ate with the Unit­ed States — or that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is too crazy to talk with Pyongyang — think again.

Back in the 1970s, Chi­na was a much cra­zier place than North Korea, so crazy in fact that thou­sands of Chi­nese escaped the mad­ness by flee­ing… to North Korea! Dur­ing the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion that began in 1966 and last­ed for rough­ly a decade, China’s leader, Mao Zedong, lost con­trol of his coun­try as teenage Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards unseat­ed sea­soned Com­mu­nist Par­ty offi­cials. Up to two mil­lion peo­ple died in the nation­wide upheaval. The tur­moil in that coun­try was matched by tur­moil with­in Mao him­self. In the 1970s, he was over­tak­en by delu­sions of grandeur as he began a descent into senil­i­ty. And yet despite such inaus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances, the Chi­na of that era nego­ti­at­ed quite rea­son­ably with the Unit­ed States to get the inter­na­tion­al recog­ni­tion it so dear­ly wanted.

In 1970, when Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon and Hen­ry Kissinger, his nation­al secu­ri­ty advis­er, decid­ed to orches­trate a diplo­mat­ic open­ing to that coun­try, it wasn’t because Chi­na had shown any eager­ness for nego­ti­a­tions. The White House was instead attempt­ing to put pres­sure on Moscow by play­ing nice with Bei­jing. In this peri­od, Nixon cul­ti­vat­ed a mad­man the­o­ry” in which his aides were to claim that he was act­ing in a deranged fash­ion, lead­ing his adver­saries, fear­ing being nuked, to think twice about chal­leng­ing him. Even so, Nixon has gone down in his­to­ry as America’s great deal­mak­er thanks to his suc­cess­ful open­ing” to China.

In 1972, crazy nego­ti­at­ed with crazy and détente was born.

In con­trast to Chi­na in those years, North Korea is not in a state of chaos. What­ev­er else you might think about Kim Jong-un, he’s not senile. The country’s for­eign pol­i­cy has been rel­a­tive­ly con­sis­tent over the decades. The devel­op­ment of a nuclear pro­gram has, in its own fash­ion, been a ratio­nal response both to the North’s loss of an edge in con­ven­tion­al mil­i­tary pow­er to South Korea and to U.S. régime-change threats. (Remem­ber, for instance, the way Pres­i­dent George W. Bush tossed the North Kore­ans into the axis of evil” with soon-to-be-invad­ed Iraq and peren­ni­al­ly threat­ened Iran in his 2002 State of the Union address.) In fact, build­ing a nuclear deter­rent may be one of the least crazy things that Pyongyang has done over the years.

And don’t for­get that the Unit­ed States has suc­cess­ful­ly nego­ti­at­ed with North Korea on a range of issues from find­ing and repa­tri­at­ing the remains of Amer­i­can sol­diers who died dur­ing the Kore­an War to agree­ments on nuclear weapons. The 1994 Agreed Frame­work last­ed near­ly a decade and effec­tive­ly froze the North’s plu­to­ni­um-pro­cess­ing capa­bil­i­ties. In an agree­ment nego­ti­at­ed dur­ing the Bush years, that coun­try actu­al­ly began to destroyele­ments of its nuclear pro­gram. The nuclear deals even­tu­al­ly fell apart because of vio­la­tions and bad faith on both sides, but they demon­strate that talk­ing with Pyongyang is fea­si­ble and can pro­duce con­crete results.

Begin­ning in 1979, aid­ed in part by détente with the Unit­ed States, Chi­na embarked on a series of major domes­tic reforms. If Amer­i­can offi­cials paid more atten­tion to what’s actu­al­ly going on inside North Korea (aside from its nuclear pro­gram), they would see that the coun­try is chang­ing — in spite of, not thanks to, U.S. policy.

The Change That Matters

I vis­it­ed North Korea three times in the late 1990s and ear­ly 2000s. There were very few cars on the streets and high­ways. Cell phones were prac­ti­cal­ly nonex­is­tent. A few semi-pri­vate restau­rants had just opened in its cap­i­tal, Pyongyang. Pri­vate mar­kets had final­ly appeared in cities nation­wide in response to the break­down of the government’s food dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tem, but they seemed more like stop­gap mea­sures the state tol­er­at­ed than a per­ma­nent fea­ture of the economy.

Today, North Korea’s polit­i­cal sys­tem remains vir­tu­al­ly intact (minus a cou­ple hun­dred offi­cials purged by Kim Jong-un). Its wide­spread sur­veil­lance sys­tem is still in place. There’s nei­ther free­dom of speech nor assem­bly and tens of thou­sands of its cit­i­zens con­tin­ue to suf­fer grim fates in its wide­spread penal camp system.

But North Korea is chang­ing. Pri­vate mar­kets have become a per­ma­nent fea­ture of the land­scape, and a ris­ing nou­veau riche and an expand­ing mid­dle class are trans­form­ing the DNA of the coun­try. Out of a pop­u­la­tion of 25 mil­lion, as many as three mil­lion peo­ple now own cell phones and there are enough cars in Pyongyang these days to gen­er­ate the occa­sion­al traf­fic jam. Those who have become wealthy from mar­ket activ­i­ties are buy­ing and installing solar pan­els to pow­er upscale appli­ances like wall-mount­ed televisions.

Cap­i­tal­ism, in oth­er words, has begun to bub­ble up from below, even though the Unit­ed States has gone to great lengths to pre­vent the coun­try from hav­ing any inter­ac­tion with the glob­al econ­o­my. It’s a del­i­cate bal­ance for the North Kore­an state. The mar­kets relieve the author­i­ties of the respon­si­bil­i­ty for meet­ing cer­tain cit­i­zens’ needs and tax­ing the new entre­pre­neurs brings mon­ey into gov­ern­ment cof­fers. But the mar­kets also are a venue for chan­nel­ing more infor­ma­tion from the out­side world, as North Kore­an traders inter­act with their Chi­nese coun­ter­parts and movies and music from South Korea make their way in via USB drives.

This ongo­ing trans­for­ma­tion of North Kore­an soci­ety has been not­ed by a few fig­ures in Wash­ing­ton as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to pur­sue a kinder, gen­tler ver­sion of régime change. We wor­ry about the minia­tur­iza­tion of North Kore­an nukes; what threat­ens the Kim régime is the minia­tur­iza­tion of infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy,” writes for­mer Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion offi­cial Tom Mali­nows­ki in Politi­co. By shar­ing media with fam­i­ly, friends, and broad­er net­works, and by learn­ing to avoid detec­tion, North Kore­ans are also gain­ing skills and con­nec­tions essen­tial to inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal organization.”

It’s not clear that the mar­ket and greater access to infor­ma­tion will, in fact, push North Kore­ans to orga­nize against the state or embrace Amer­i­can-style democ­ra­cy. But sup­port­ing such changes makes sense any­way. The expe­ri­ence of Chi­na sug­gests that such reforms, even when imple­ment­ed with­in a non-demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem, can reduce the threat of war and con­flict. It has worked before in oth­er coun­tries,” econ­o­mist Rudi­ger Frank wrote in Glob­al Asia after a recent vis­it to North Korea. It will work again.”

In 1960, a U.S. Nation­al Intel­li­gence Esti­mate warned that China’s arro­gant self-con­fi­dence, rev­o­lu­tion­ary fer­vor, and dis­tort­ed view of the world may lead [Bei­jing] to mis­cal­cu­late risks. This dan­ger would be height­ened if Com­mu­nist Chi­na achieved a nuclear weapons capa­bil­i­ty.” Four years lat­er, Chi­na test­ed its first nuclear weapon.

More than half a cen­tu­ry has passed since that moment and Chi­na is still no paragon of democ­ra­cy or human rights. Ten­sions per­sist across the Tai­wan Strait and in the South Chi­na Sea, and Bei­jing pos­sess­es a small but sig­nif­i­cant arse­nal of deliv­er­able nuclear weapons. Few peo­ple in the Unit­ed States, how­ev­er, wor­ry that Chi­na will launch an attack against Guam, Alas­ka, Hawaii, or the White House. Chi­na has too much of a stake in the inter­na­tion­al sys­tem to risk los­ing every­thing by act­ing with the rev­o­lu­tion­ary fer­vor” that so wor­ried U.S. offi­cials in 1960. A com­bi­na­tion of inter­nal reforms and suc­cess­ful nego­ti­a­tions with Wash­ing­ton trans­formed that coun­try into a more or less respon­si­ble glob­al player.

Embed­ding North Korea in a sim­i­lar way in the inter­na­tion­al sys­tem of eco­nom­ic and geopo­lit­i­cal nego­ti­a­tions, not to men­tion human rights con­ven­tions, will reduce the threat it cur­rent­ly pos­es to its south­ern brethren, its Asian neigh­bors, and more dis­tant­ly the Unit­ed States. Eco­nom­ic sanc­tions, mil­i­tary pres­sure, and intem­per­ate threats, on oth­er hand, will ulti­mate­ly prove coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, doing lit­tle but to inten­si­fy the noth­ing-to-lose men­tal­i­ty of the régime, while fail­ing to encour­age the changes already ongo­ing. By con­tin­u­ing to iso­late an already iso­lat­ed land, the Unit­ed States is only strength­en­ing the very wall against which it’s been bang­ing its head for so many years.

It’s way past time for the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to take a few aspirin and a few deep breaths, and seize this oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk with the North Kore­ans before both head and wall sus­tain irrepara­ble damage.

John Fef­fer is the direc­tor of For­eign Pol­i­cy In Focus at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies. His most recent book, Frost­lands, comes out in Novem­ber (Hay­mar­ket).
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