Trump’s hardline approach on North Korea has gotten a lot of headlines. First, the mainstream media made it feel like we were on the cusp of World War III. Now, they’re saying Kim is making him look a fool. What’s really going on in North Korea?
Let’s step back and take a pragmatic look at the North Korea denuclearization. Let’s avoid partisan biases such as “Trump’s a master deal maker!” and “Trump’s a moron being played by Kim.” The situation is far too nuanced for these simple views.
We believe North Korea truly wants to become part of the global system. We don’t believe they’ll really denuclearize, however, we believe they’re willing to step back a little for a spot at the world table.
Trump definitely deserves credit. Not only is Trump taking a tougher approach than recent administrations, he’s so inconsistent in his decision making that he’s put China and North Korea on their heels. For the first time in a long time, China feels like it has something to lose in this game and has shown less willingness to stand behind a wild North Korea. Losing big brother is causing North Korea to feel pressure to change. However, we also believe the timing couldn’t be better:
1) North Korea feels they’ve reached the point of deterrence. They’ve successfully tested nuclear weapons and they are capable of reaching the US mainland via ICBM.
2) The west is war-weary, especially of wars resulting in regime change. Putin invaded Crimea with little to no opposition. Assad is being allowed to carry out a war in which he’s crossed “red-lines” of global norms multiple times and the most he’s seen are air-strike slaps on the wrist. Why would the West react any differently to North Korea?
3) Kim watched China’s Xi figuratively tear up the Chinese constitution and institute unlimited rule. Kim also watched China adhere to strict communist rule and human rights violations while engaging with the global economy and being handsomely rewarded for doing so.
4) China, their regional guardian for many years and economic lifeline, seems more focused on economic growth and becoming a world hegemon than being their step-parent. China seems to have realized the crazy actions of North Korea are holding them back. They still want the buffer zone, but they’re not going to allow a nuclear state on their border to act irrational or become destabilized.
Therefore, there are both strategic and economic reasons for Kim to work with the US toward some sort of peace and entry into the global order.
Kim can follow the Israeli example of not officially being a nuclear power while clearly being one, allowing him to avoid calls to denuclearize while still deterring the world from threatening his state and his rule. Kim’s regime, despite its horrific violations of human rights, seems safe as long as he plays nice.
Kim also witnessed the ridiculous economic boom China has sustained by mixing communism and capitalism. China made its market relatively “freer” by opening their economy to the rest of the world, yet used state resources and centralized decision making to make a killing. Kim, now that he feels comfortable in power, can easily use this same strategy to not only increase his state’s economy but his own personal wealth. And, since the world seems to have grown weary of fighting human-rights battles, he doesn’t have to make many concessions while doing so.
So, although Trump’s hardline approach to North Korea and his deal-making abilities from his days as a businessman definitely deserve credit, his actions couldn’t have come at a better time. There’s no reason for Kim to continue the act. He has his deterrent, the world seems willing, to an extent, to let him continue operations as normal, and he sees massive economic opportunity. North Korea seems ready to become a part of the world order whether we like it or not.