Western coverage of North Korea almost always focuses on the same themes: its nuclear missile capability and the “craziness” of the Kim leadership. Some journalists describe how North Korean officials are allegedly assassinated by anti-aircraft guns or fed to hungry dogs. Others detail the country’s humanitarian disaster, demonstrating a morbid curiosity about the worst depravities taken by the state against its people. Such is the unpredictable and “crazy” North Korea of mainstream media.
Conventional U.S. wisdom also subscribes to this view. John McCain once called Kim a “crazy fat kid that’s running North Korea.” After Kim Jong-Un threatened to fire missiles at the U.S. territory of Guam, President Donald Trump threatened to respond with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” But does this language help us understand how to deal with North Korea? Probe any further, the discussion stops. And in the ensuing silence, it is clear that the international community has no strategy for dealing with the rogue state.
Contrary to popular belief, North Korea is not a crazy or irrational actor. It is a state for which the possession of nuclear weapons has become a question of survival. And if its current trajectory does not drastically change, North Korea will possess full nuclear capability in the near future. Treating the country as an insane or irrational player or appealing to its leadership with moralistic arguments will not work. And given the escalating tensions, now more than ever, global leaders must work together to devise a common strategy.
So far, great powers like China, the U.S. and Russia have failed to devise effective or appropriate policies towards North Korea. President Trump is perhaps history’s least qualified president to deal with a rogue nuclear state. Posturing and threats do not work on Pyongyang, and Trump’s fire and fury comment comes off like a poorly considered bluff.
The U.S. has also failed to co-opt China into the North Korea discussion, instead berating Beijing for not doing “enough” in a complete failure to recognize the nuances of China’s position. Beijing on the other hand, frustrated by being forced to play messenger between Pyongyang and Washington, also lacks a long-term solution for North Korea.
Entangled in strained relations not seen since the Cold War, Russia and the U.S. have been unable to come together over this issue. Moscow disagrees fundamentally with the Washington line, preferring dialogue and cooperation over U.S. defensive agitation. Despite sharing a small border with North Korea, having intimate knowledge of its missile programs, and having established trade relations with the state, Moscow’s voice has been drowned out. In fact, neither China nor the U.S. have considered Russia’s approach with any seriousness at all. It’s safe to say that the discussion between the three major powers is not getting anywhere.
North Korea is a serious challenge to global stability. Yet the international community’s discussions about the country’s motivations have been superficial and search for solutions minimal. Moreover, by continuing to dismiss North Korea as an illegitimate state actor, we have shut down our ability to understand what’s driving it.
By opening and increasing dialogue with Pyongyang, the international community will have better insight into the nation’s strategy. In doing so, we may also find that the fears and desires driving North Korea are, in fact, rational: it has a strong will to survive and a need to guarantee that survival through the acquisition of a nuclear deterrent. Given this, it also becomes important to understand that “solving” the North Korea question may not be a matter of removing the threat of the regime altogether. Instead, it may be a matter of managing the level of risk. As Richard Haass notes, “managing such challenges may not be satisfying, but often it is the most that can be hoped for.”
The North Korea question has the potential to unite key global players. Yet we are once again not listening to each other in our pursuit of incoherent and unilateral approaches. But this time, the stakes are much too high to carry on this way.