It is the pinnacle of hubris for the world to continue to treat North Korea as if it were an ill child that simply needed a good dose of medicine in order to get better. It is not. The Kim dynasty has, despite nearly unanimous global opposition to it, endured for decades, and it will continue to do so because it has become adept at not playing by the rules. Given this, and the epic failure of its neighbours and the West to stop the Kims’ inexorable march towards becoming a full-fledged nuclear power, it is time to turn the pyramid upside down, throw out the old playbook, and give Kim Jong-Un what he wants.
The Kim dynasty has proven that the promise of retaliation by the global community for Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, and satellite launch capability is hollow. Whether it was the breach of the Six-party agreement by North Korea, its continued detonations of nuclear weapons, or its development of ICBMs capable of a nuclear payload, the international community’s failure to stop the Kim family in their tracks decades ago implies that an important part of the North Korea crisis resides with the West.
When it was first enacted in 1970, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) had three core objectives: that non-nuclear states should not become nuclear states, that existing nuclear states should share nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, and that disarmament would be pursued to eventually eliminate nuclear weapons. None of this has actually occurred. The original nuclear “club” of five has grown to nine states (and none of the four new entrants have joined the NPT), peaceful nuclear technology has not been widely shared by the nuclear powers, and although some progress has been made toward disarmament, the US and Russia are currently in the process of expanding the numbers of types of nuclear weapons they possess. On this basis, what incentive does a non-nuclear state have to remain that way?
We can never know what “might” have happened had the NPT functioned in the manner it was supposed to, any more than we may know how the Kim regime “might” have responded if it had. But what can be said with some certainty is that, if the world is looked at through the lens of Kim Jong-Un, it is a very unfriendly place indeed, regardless of how much he and his family may have contributed to that reality. The fact is, Kim Jong-Un is holding the cards now, since he possesses nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them on a missile, so if the rest of the world wants to find a way to walk back from the brink with Pyongyang, it would be well advised to start getting into his map of the world, rather than viewing it from its own myopic lens.
No nation has the ability to effectively protect itself against the use of nuclear weapons on top of a missile, or the potentially catastrophic result of electromagnetic pulse resulting from the explosion of a missile in its atmosphere. Kim Jong-Un knows this, so he believes he can afford to play hardball with every nation on earth, with the knowledge that, short of the annihilation of North Korea in a nuclear exchange, he holds the upper hand. That is the real reason why, despite all the huffing and puffing, and all the bluster and bravado, no nation has invaded North Korea.
The world should acknowledge that it is the failure to formally end the Korean War, combined with the failure of the NPT and of the international community to stop the Kims decades ago, which has led us to this juncture. The West, and the United States in particular, should put its wounded pride aside and treat Kim Jong-Un not as if he were a mad man, but instead with dignity and respect. Only skilled strategists and military planners could have achieved what the Kims have achieved, despite all the odds. If the world is seen from Kim Jong-Un’s perspective, he is acting perfectly rationally. Nations do what they must to survive. North Korea has, for decades, engaged in widespread black-market activities, cybercrime, and the repeated use of virtual terrorism to support its military and economy. In the face of international sanctions, it has used every tool at its disposal. What else was it expected to do given its circumstances?
The rest of the world has proven incapable of containing North Korea. Previous efforts at negotiation based on the “old” play book have failed, regime change appears extremely unlikely, and war on the Korean peninsula (and the region) is so horrendous to contemplate that it should not even be seriously considered. Kim Jong-Un (and his nukes and missiles) are not going anywhere and he is essentially holding the rest of the world hostage. The time has come for the international community to try something completely different. What some might call “capitulation” to Kim Jong-Un should be thought of as a cold, hard dose of reality.
What does he want? First and foremost, to be respected, and treated as an equal. Second, to be given assurances that neither will the outside world seek to assassinate him, nor invade his country. Third, that the demand that he abandon his nukes and missiles be dropped (no other nuclear or ICBM-capable nation has been “required” to do so, why should he?). Fourth, that a formula be found for enabling North Korea to join the family of nations legally, so that it can support itself, in exchange for agreeing to halt its illegal activities on and off line.
What Kim wants most is to strike a deal with the US, which it perceives as the gravest threat to North Korea’s survival under his leadership. Donald Trump should take his self-declared negotiation skills and meet face-to-face with Kim. Since both of them have similar personality characteristics, why not take advantage of it and treat the North Korea issue as a business transaction? At this juncture, there is nothing to lose by trying. If both men were to agree to such a negotiation, while putting their egos and bravado aside, there actually may be a chance to strike a deal. If that can be achieved, Kim could attempt to do the same with the other nations on its borders and in the region.
There is no point in trying to craft a conventional solution to an unconventional problem. The North Korean crisis is unique, and it requires an unusual approach to problem solving. The question is whether Messrs Kim and Trump want to find a way out of this imbroglio, or whether they are hell bent on diving further into the abyss. What is needed is a dramatic breakthrough based on bold thinking. There is so little time, and so much to be done. They had better get on with it.
Daniel Wagner is the US-based founder of Country Risk Solutions, Managing Director of Risk Cooperative, and author of the new book Virtual Terror. He has three decades of experience managing cross-border risk, including 15 years of underwriting experience with AIG, GE, the Asian Development Bank, and World Bank Group.