Only the end of Kim Jong-un will disarm North Korea

In Washington, one still sometimes hears from the diminishing ranks of North Korea “engagers” calls to give the noxious and incorrigible regime in Pyongyang “security guarantees” in exchange for whatever concession they want to buy from His Porcine Majesty this year — denuclearization in 1994, partial denuclearization in 2000, or a freeze today. The idea behind security guarantees, of course, is to incentivize Pyongyang to do what we want it to do, by offering it the stability we think it values most.

Thankfully, our talks with North Korea have never advanced far enough to make such a Faustian bargain, because you can be sure that to Pyongyang, “security guarantees” would mean no sanctions, no U.N. votes criticizing its crimes against humanity, no “slander” of its repressive regime, no defensive military exercises, no missile defense, and no parodies or ridicule of his ridiculous leader abroad. (It’s conceivable in the post-Sony era that North Korea would become a second partial, de facto exception to the First Amendment, along with blasphemy against Islam, as defined by its most extreme mobs.) 

Now that James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, has conceded that “the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause,” it’s time for us to think in terms of insecurity guarantees. The idea is precisely a photo negative of security guarantees — incentivizing both Pyongyang and Beijing by instilling the fear of either coup plots in Pyongyang, or a chaotic insurgency in the flood-stricken and angry northeastern provinces. It is often said that China fears instability above everything else in North Korea. Surely China — which, as I’ve amply documented, willfully violates and undermines U.N. sanctions — would prefer to help enforce sanctions than to have another Syria break out along its border.

What Clapper really said was that diplomacy can’t disarm Kim Jong-un, for reasons relating to the latter’s psychology. That’s almost certainly true, and it means that our goals must evolve to conform with this hard reality. Our goal must be to end the regime itself, not only because our treaty allies in Asia can’t live with a nuclear North Korea, but also because a nuclear North Korea nearly gave us a nuclear Syria, and may yet mean a nuclear Iran and a nuclear al-Qaeda.

Before I speak of strategies, let me comment on Clapper’s statement. It was both true and unwise for him to say. Senior administration officials are supposed to know the script and stick to it. This is true of administrations I agree with and administrations I disagree with. Presidents can’t make coherent policies without coherent communications. His statement probably gave aid and comfort to the generals in Pyongyang, and great unease to our allies in Seoul and Tokyo, who will read it as the U.S. concluding that they must learn to live under the continual extortionate threat of a nuclear North Korea, even though Clapper didn’t exactly say this.

Seoul, of course, knows that this isn’t possible. It knows that a nuclear North Korea will seek the slow strangulation of its freedom and prosperity. South Korea would lose its freedom like the character in “The Sun Also Rises” lost his wealth — “Gradually, then suddenly.” North Korea may be the next president’s greatest security challenge, and President Obama wasted two full terms in the White House doing next to nothing to arrest it, except for a lot of wishful secret talks and one abortive freeze deal in 2012. History should judge President Obama’s North Korea legacy harshly, even if many historians are likely to be partial to Obama ideologically.

Now, let’s turn to a discussion of strategies. It should go without saying that we aren’t limited to just one. One of these should be — some of you can already finish this sentence for me — to freeze the accounts in Chinese banks that pay, feed, and equip North Korea’s elites, security forces, and military. It’s conceivable that such a strategy, if pursued aggressively, would trigger a crisis of confidence in Pyongyang within two years.

Sanctions skeptics sometimes say that sanctions alone won’t be enough, and I agree. We should also actively subvert the regime politically. We will need different strategies for different constituencies inside North Korea. I’ve written at length about “guerrilla engagement” with North Korea’s dispossessed rural population, both to provide for their material needs, to soften the burdens of reunification, and to galvanize their discontent behind a cohesive ideology. Unfortunately, it will take a minimum of five years for such a strategy to pose a real challenge to the regime’s control of the countryside.

We also need a separate strategy to destabilize the elite power structure in Pyongyang, by making quiet and not-so-quiet appeals to encourage a coup d’etat against Kim Jong-un. By now, it’s clear that there is significant discontent within the elites. There has been an unprecedented wave of defections from all levels of the elites this year. Recently, even the loyalty of the minders, and of the minder-minders, has come into question.

Obviously, an internal challenge to Kim Jong-un would have to overcome many interlocking layers of surveillance. Bob Collins recently described how that system works. But this was no less true of the regimes in Romania and East Germany. Clapper is almost certainly right that a diplomatic solution is exceedingly unlikely, and the result of recent talks with North Korea should reinforce this. We must also accept the bitter truth that a nuclear North Korea will not just coexist with us, or with our allies. If that is so, then the only solution to the coming crisis that does not involve war is to destroy the regime from within.