First, the North Korea commentariat told us that the Yongbyon reactor might be for no more nefarious purpose than generating electricity (never mind that it was never connected to the electrical grid). Then, it told us that the North merely wanted aid and recognition by the United States, to better provide for the people it had so recently starved to death in heaps, the dust of whose loves and aspirations now fills a thousand forlorn and forgotten pits in the barren hills of Hamgyeong. It told us that Pyongyang only wanted to open itself up to the world and bask in our gentle rays of glasnost and perestroika. It told us that if we were willing to disregard the good sense of the voting public and pay enough extortion money, surely Pyongyang could be talked out of its nukes.
What all of these theories had in common — aside from being wrong — is that they required a determined ignorance of the nature of the regime in Pyongyang. The appeal of these theories has always been greatest among those Americans who knew the least about its ideology and abuses of its own people (arms control experts, diplomats, and left-leaning academics), and among those South Koreans with the fewest objections to either. Overwhelming majorities of the commentariat in Washington and Seoul also embraced the reassurance these theories offered. Indeed, many proponents of these discredited theories still cling to the fantasy and they can talk Pyongyang into a nuclear and missile freeze, no matter how many times Pyongyang declares its unwillingness to discuss or consider any such thing.
At some point, we can’t confine the blame for this atrocious predictive record to the commentariat itself; some of that blame must also stain the journalists and policymakers who keep slogging back to this well of wisdom to fill their buckets and ladle it into the troughs of newspaper readers and presidents. Foreign affairs is not an empirical science; still, one wonders when a predictive record becomes catastrophic enough that the theories and their adherents get the Dick Cheney treatment. Surely, in the modern history of analytical folly, “They will open up and reform,” has to be right up there with, “He only wants the Sudentenland,” and, “They will welcome us as liberators.” For all my criticisms of President Trump — and there have been many of them, for many reasons, on many issues — he is the first president we’ve had in 30 years who possessed the instincts to reject this nonsense.
Now, the commentariat tells us that we must accept a nuclear North Korea as a fait accompli and fall back on deterrence. I’ve grown tired of rehashing all of the counterpoints to this — did we deter the sinking of the Cheonan, the Yeonpyong attacks, the Sony cyberterrorism, the 2015 landmine incident, Pyongyang’s multiple assassination attempts and threats against journalists, its nuclear and chemical proliferation, or the assassination of Kim Jong-nam with VX in the Kuala Lumpur airport? On what basis do we still deceive ourselves into believing that we’ve seen the worst of this behavior, or that this problem is a distant one?
“We cannot have a society in which some dictators someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States because if somebody is able to intimidate us out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing once they see a documentary that they don’t like or news reports that they don’t like. That’s not who we are. That’s not what America is about.” – Barack Obama, Dec. 19, 2014
If these recent incidents are in fact more indicative of Pyongyang’s new way of war and how it will escalate in the coming years than the 1950 Kim Il-sung strategy, on what basis do we believe that deterrence that was failing before will succeed now? On what basis do we doubt that a nuclear-armed North Korea will continue to escalate this war of skirmishes? On what basis do we believe that the crisis is already as bad it as it will get? If the commentariat ducks those questions, perhaps it hasn’t applied its imagination to the question of just how much worse things will get in five years if present trends continue. Illusions are stubborn things, and the commentariat’s predictive failures could make for a fine seminar on cognitive biases one day. That’s why I keep pushing back against this latest dangerous blandishment.
Beneath all of this is the long record of Pyongyang’s ideology and stated intentions to use its nukes to achieve reunification on its terms, an intention Pyongyang is increasingly brazen about. Brian Myers and Edward Oh make that case compellingly enough in new articles. I won’t repeat them here, though I can’t resist quoting this passage from Myers:
Also worth mentioning in this context are conservative reports of an academic proposal now circulating among higher-ups that proposes, as a transition to unification, a Kaesong Confederated State. This would be a swathe of jointly administered territory along the southernmost reaches of the North, from the port of Haeju in the west to the Geumgang mountains in the east, that would play host to five universities. That last word, I suspect, is meant about as seriously as the Associated Press’ use of the word bureau for its Pyongyang office.
Of course, one need not choose deterrence or unification as Pyongyang’s reason for sacrificing all the aid, money, prosperity, and recognition the commentariat told us it wanted — as it consistently sacrificed all of those things for the nuclear weapons it preferred, for some reason. If you want to be precise, the answer is both deterrence and reunification, because Pyongyang’s strategy is to deter Washington and Seoul from responding to its carefully calibrated attacks against American or South Korean interests and targets — attacks that will be designed to dissolve their increasingly uncertain alliance, but mostly to raise a chorus of calls from the usual commentariat for us to make a few “small” concessions that will be calculated to lower the South’s military and ideological defenses, skirmish by skirmish and crisis by crisis, against North Korean hegemony and remote control through a confederation.
To know whether we can deter Pyongyang, we must know what we’re deterring. It is as true — and as irrelevant — that we can deter a 1950-style invasion or a nuclear first strike on Seattle as it was true 80 years ago that the Maginot Line could protect Alsace-Lorraine from Hindenburg’s Prussian cavalry. Whether you believe that Pyongyang’s war-of-skirmishes strategy is plausible matters less than whether a petulant, impulsive, morbidly obese, and psychotic 33-year-old heir to a medieval dynasty who has never heard the word “no” does.