In the last several months, as Pyongyang has revealed its progress toward acquiring the capacity to destroy an American city, the North Korea commentariat has cleaved into two camps: those who believe we can live with a nuclear North Korea, and those who do not. Regular readers know that I’m in the latter camp. North Korea has proliferated nuclear, ballistic missile, and chemical weapons technology. It uses weapons of mass destruction to murder people in foreign airports and terrorize its critics. It threatens terrorist attacks against our movie theaters. It robs banks, sells dope, and counterfeits currency. Its leaders have no discernible regard for human life. They send kids to die in gulags, drown infants for being racially impure, and condemn millions to mass starvation. They need conflict to justify the immiseration of their subjects, and may even be biochemically addicted to conflict. Admittedly, this isn’t a comforting view.
North Korea is an inherently unhealthy obsession, which may explain why a certain type of North Korea-watcher could see Kim Jong-un shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still interpret it as cry for talks. But if Kim Jong-un had the slightest interest in opening, reform, or improving the welfare of the people, he would have seized multiple opportunities to do so, rather than making it a national priority to isolate and impoverish them. He knows he can’t survive forever as dictator of the poorer, browner, uglier Korea. No matter how ardently some may wish to coexist with the horror he inflicts on North Korea’s people out of our sight, all of the evidence says that Kim will not coexist with us. To believe we can live happily ever after with a nuclear North Korea is a self-delusion that risks condemning millions of Koreans to slavery, and the rest of us to insecurity and terror. I have no affection for Donald Trump, but H.R. McMaster has decades of evidence on his side when he says that North Korea is not a status quo power.
One aspect of this argument that has drawn more interest lately is the surprisingly controversial notion that Pyongyang’s nukes might be part of a rational, coherent, and plausible plan to achieve the thing it has said for decades that it intends to achieve — unification. As one who has advanced that argument, I’ve noticed a curious thing recently: people have come at me to poke holes in arguments I’ve never made. Some have tried to talk me out of the preposterous idea of North Korea sending an army of scrawny conscripts to occupy downtown Seoul. (They need not have wasted their time; I’ve made the same argument myself.) Or that Pyongyang wouldn’t “win” a war that destroys its prize and cash cow (ditto). Or that South Koreans would never let their government “surrender” to the North, which is as irrelevant as arguing about whether Americans “surrendered” to Putin in last year’s election. The Russians have developed more sophisticated ideas about achieving their interests than a “Red Dawn” sequel, and I also credit the North Koreans with having an equal or greater capacity for strategic thought. The laziest, most offensive, and most defamatory argument of all is that this must all be part of some scheme to peddle a war that I’ve consistently and vocally opposed, but this smear is de rigeur within certain quarters of the political left. One learns to tune it out, along with those who make such spurious claims.
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Andray Abrahamian now argues against what he calls the “dangerous” ideas that “North Korea wants to use nuclear weapons to reunify the Korean peninsula by force or coercion,” or that Pyongyang can’t be deterred “because it is fundamentally irrational.” These aren’t really my hypotheses, either, although elements of them strike close enough to things I’ve written to be recognizable as corruptions of them. So, before I commence with the fisking, let’s clarify just what my hypothesis is: the North’s rational strategy is to use its nuclear arsenal to achieve hegemony over South Korea and reunify Korea under its rule — just like it has said since 1948. But as circumstances change, so do strategies. Under my hypothesis, Pyongyang intends to avoid both a major war and any perception of drastic political change in South Korea that might arouse its enemies to obstruct its strategy while they still can. I’m not arguing that this strategy will necessarily work, but plenty of precedent suggests that Pyongyang has reason to think it can.
1. Its short-term goals are no different than Putin’s goals for the United States or any number of other countries — to exercise enough control over how South Koreans think to obscure embarrassing truths, embarrass or silence its critics, influence elections and policies, and give an appeasement-minded leader in Seoul the political space to accede to its demands. As I’ll explain, it has already done or tried to do all of these things.
2. Its medium-term goal is to wage a war of skirmishes to coerce concessions that lower South Korea’s defenses and leave it vulnerable to extortion. Pyongyang will use coercive diplomacy to suppress the readiness of Seoul’s forces, the capability of its defenses, the resiliency of its economy to limited attacks, and the strategic posture of its defenses. It will demand the cancellation of defensive exercises or an end to the deployment of missile defenses. Eventually, it will demand “peace” talks for the removal of U.S. forces. I’ll explain how it has already done or tried to do all of that, too.
3. Its long-term goal is to establish and control an inter-Korean coalition government. As I’ve already explained, South Korea has already agreed to this in principle, in the 2000 and 2007 Joint Statements signed by former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Yes, the two Koreas differ sharply on their interpretations of those statements, for now. Once Pyongyang achieves military, strategic, and information hegemony over Seoul, it will be in a position to dominate that coalition, regardless of the two states’ relative economies and populations.
Thus, Korean War II will not be a mechanized, cross-border invasion or a surrender ceremony on the deck of the U.S.S. Pueblo. To the extent that a new Joint Statement or peace treaty amounts to the same thing, I’m confident that few South Korean voters will recognize it as such — and I’m just as confident that the reaction of most journalists and academics will be glowing coverage and op-eds. We will not see footage of North Korean tanks crashing through the gates of the Blue House anytime in the foreseeable future. Korean War II is being waged at a lower intensity, for more limited objectives, and at a far higher level of political sophistication than most of us give it credit for. This new way of war simmered and boiled for years before most experts or policymakers in Washington or Seoul even noticed that it had begun. I know how paranoid this may seem, but remember that this is an argument about Pyongyang’s intentions. It must be probative of something that if you put “North Korea paranoid” into a Google search window, you get more than half a million results. Paranoid people tend to do things that justify paranoia in others.
Phase 1: Influence What They Read & How They Think
So, let the fisking commence.
Pyongyang’s leaders today are not stupid and know even a slow takeover of the South through a federation is unrealistic.
I’m glad we agree that Pyongyang’s leaders aren’t stupid, even if we disagree about their objectives (but much more on that later). So if, as Mr. Abrahamian now argues, its objective is self-preservation — or if it’s opening and reform, as he previously argued — why have such smart men been stupid enough to throw away multiple offers of aid, engagement, investment, and security guarantees? Why do these intelligent men continue to attack South Korea and get caught committing embarrassing crimes that are far less profitable than, say, exporting electronics, or reaching an agreement that would allow Rason and Kaesong to reach their potential? Pyongyang’s choices make no sense under any benign interpretation of its intentions, or under any interpretation that leaves the status quo intact, with Korea divided indefinitely.
They know that South Korea’s GDP is at least 30 times larger than theirs.
GDP can be one useful predictor of outcomes in conventional wars; it’s almost useless as a predictor of who wins asymmetric or hybrid wars, which are won by the side whose political endurance is greatest. See, e.g., North Vietnam versus South Vietnam, Rhodesia versus ZANLA, the Soviet Union versus the Afghan mujahedeen, and dozens of wars of “liberation” of the 1960s and 70s. Indeed, the more prosperous societies are, the more they and their business interests have to lose, and the more willing they become to trade political freedom for temporary security. Here’s something else to ponder: who believes it’s sheer coincidence that as South Korea became the world’s most wired society, North Korea built one of the world’s most advanced cyber warfare capabilities?
They know Seoul’s military budget is bigger than the North’s entire GDP.
Hence the term “asymmetric” warfare. Russia’s economy and population are also smaller than ours, and to the best of my knowledge, Chris Hemsworth isn’t ambushing T-72s along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rest assured that nothing in my posts hypothesizes that skeletal, vinalon-clad conscripts from Ryanggang-do will soon be guarding shuttered “booking” clubs in Kangnam. My worst-case scenario terrifies me precisely because a street-level view of it would, in its first years, seem banal to anyone who has lived in Korea. There are enough riot police in South Korea to contain almost any protest; it’s just a question of who is giving them what orders. Otherwise, I envision an escalation of what we’ve seen since 2010 — a war of provocations and skirmishes, punctuated by negotiations in which the South makes strategic and political concessions in exchange for Pyongyang’s promises to stop scaring people. Again, two South Korean presidents have already agreed in principle to a coalition government, toward which South Korea’s current President still sees the 2018 Olympics as a first cautious step. I doubt we’ll have to play this argument out for long. If my hypothesis is right, watch for Pyongyang to make more aggressive demands to speed up the implementation of those Joint Statements by this time next year, maybe after the 2018 mid-term elections.
They know that “taking” the South and controlling its diverse political and civil society institutions is impossible. They’re not interested.
Not interested? I don’t know how anyone could seriously argue that North Korea isn’t “interested” in controlling South Korea’s society and institutions. Would Mr. Abrahamian have us believe that in all of his visits to North Korea, he wasn’t harangued about unification and the necessity of all Koreans submitting to the leadership of the all-wise suryong? Has he never read any of the bitter denunciations by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland of disobedient “south Koreans,” or heard of Pyongyang’s many violent threats against its critics in the South? It’s no secret that Pyongyang has been running influence operations in the South for decades. I’ve also tried to catalog the many cases in which its Fifth Columnists in the South — not liberals, but people who support Pyongyang’s ideology — have been exposed in the media.
Having practiced law with the Army in Korea, I don’t agree that all of Korea’s institutions are strong or perceived as such. My interactions with Korean witnesses taught me that they had low confidence in the courts. The broad powers of police and prosecutors, and loose rules of evidence, can lead to dubious judgments. Koreans, especially on the left, justifiably distrust a politicized National Intelligence Service that ought to be distinguishing free speech from nefarious foreign influence.
But didn’t Park Geun-hye’s impeachment prove how strong South Korea’s democratic institutions are? No, it proved that a lot of people who really didn’t like Park Geun-hye could come out onto the streets until the courts gave them what they wanted. The conclusion was already foregone by the time the courts threw out the tablet that started it all: “The tablet PC allegedly contains crucial evidence tying Choi and Park to rampant corruption, but the court accepted argument from Park’s lawyers that its provenance is dubious” — that is, it was “found by a reporter under circumstances that remain unclear.” Choi Soon-sil later said she hadn’t used it since 2012. Of course, she had obvious motives to lie, but I’m glad I live in a society where any accused, no matter how hated she is on the streets, can demand a forensic examination of the evidence against her. Because on the off-hand chance Choi was telling the truth — and not for nothing, our burdens of proof favor the accused — you have to wonder how that evidence found its way onto the tablet and the headlines. You don’t have to like Park to see that the evidence against her would have been laughed out of an American courtroom. You can believe she was probably guilty of something (corruption, mishandling classified information, poor judgment, just plain weirdness) and still see her downfall as exposing vulnerabilities in the NIS, the presidency, the media, the courts, and laws that allow the impeachment of presidents before a full investigation is even done.
They know the South’s population is double theirs and that South Koreans are politically engaged and extremely attached to their hard-earned democracy.
Whoever doubts that any South Korean leader would compromise South Koreans’ political engagement and hard-earned democracy must not recall that in 2014, Park Geun-hye agreed to do exactly that to secure a new round of so-called family “reunions.” Specifically, Park agreed to end the “slander” of North Korea, although as a South Korean researcher pointed out, “the no-slander clause could prove problematic, as the North believes the South Korean media should be bound by it, which of course it isn’t.” But a vigorous free press would never let that pass! Well, just read how gleefully Choe Sang-hun covered it. And sure enough, within weeks, Pyongyang said Park’s criticism of its nuclear program and human rights abuses — and also, the testimony of “human scum” defectors before the U.N. Commission of Inquiry — violated the no-slander deal. As the AFP reported, “The “no-slander” clause was always going to prove problematic, with North Korea insisting it should extend to the South Korean media as well as private groups and individuals.” To me, it was far more problematic that Pyongyang demanded — and at least in its view, briefly got — a veto over what South Korean media and civic groups could say about it. I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s such a dangerous precedent. Yet not only was there no public outrage or media backlash, the few journalists who weren’t fast asleep did a golf clap.
As for South Koreans’ attachment to democracy, most people would probably agree with this statement in the abstract, but Koreans and Americans have very different ideas of what “democracy” means. Depending on how you ask the question, South Koreans’ support for freedom of speech is between ten and twenty percentage points lower than it is in the United States, and this is a society that already tolerates ham-handed government internet censorship, the fear of libel suits (even against journalists or sitting lawmakers) where truth is no defense, politically motivated censorship by both the political left and right, and standards of journalism I’ll charitably call “uneven.” Americans used to believe their own democratic institutions were unassailable until the 2016 election showed their vulnerability to skillful hybrid warfare.
Speaking of hybrid warfare, who else is old enough to remember the North Korean spy ring known as Ilshimhoe, which was run by a former USFK soldier and current “peace” activist named Michael Jang? Reconnaissance General Bureau agents ran the ring — it called itself a “Valentine Club” — from a safe house on the outskirts of Beijing. According to (admittedly, mostly right-leaning) Korean press reports, Ilshimhoe tried to influence the Seoul mayoral election in 2006, fed Pyongyang information about the six-party talks, and might have planted spies in the Blue House and various government offices. I know, you say — just gossip. Except that Jang and several others were brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced to prison terms. Well, then — it must be another case of McCarthyist persecution! Except that the convictions occurred on Roh Moo-hyun’s watch, after the head of the NIS hinted that he’d come under political pressure to stop digging and resigned. Shortly thereafter, the investigation did stop, the cases were quickly brought to trial, and I doubt that more than two or three of you knew that this had even happened.
Phase 2: A War of Skirmishes Against Seoul’s Defenses
Throughout the war of skirmishes Pyongyang has waged since at least 2010, it has made (and sometimes won) significant political, strategic, and financial demands from Seoul. Most notable was the alleged and abortive surrender of South Korea’s de facto maritime boundary, the Northern Limit Line or NLL. Seoul unilaterally imposed the NLL after the Korean War Armistice, because the warring parties couldn’t agree on a maritime extension of the DMZ.
In 2007, in a last grasp at expanding on the 2000 Joint Statement, Roh Moo-hyun allegedly ceded the NLL, which protects some of South Korea’s most vital air and sea lanes (and some rich fishing waters) to a jointly controlled “peace zone.” I say “alleged” because Cho Myoung-gun, the Roh aide who is now Moon Jae-in’s Unification Minister, destroyed the text before Roh’s political opponents could take office and read it. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service leaked a transcript in 2013, and yes, the timing of that is curious. Disputes over the authenticity of the transcript are harder to credit. Just as in our legal system, when someone destroys evidence, it’s reasonable to assume he did it to hide something. In the end, polls said Koreans didn’t know what to believe, meaning South Korea entered the post-truth world at least four years before we did. (On that point, it’s worth listening to this discussion between Sam Harris and Anne Applebaum to understand that some disinformation strategies are designed to do nothing more than confuse people so much that they disengage. And if so, mission accomplished.)
Had Pyongyang secured this “peace zone,” the threat of its closure over, say, disputes about the apportionment of fishing rights or rights of innocent passage might have been enough to throw South Korea into a recession, crash its stock market, or spur capital flight — all without instigating a major war. The residents of the Yellow Sea Islands, like Baekryeong-do and Yeonpyeong-do, would have been hopelessly isolated and easy prey for abduction at sea. The result of the 2007 election prevented Seoul from carrying out the terms of this agreement (whatever it was) but in 2009, Pyongyang secretly approached South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and demanded a summit — the price for which would be $500 million in rice and fertilizer, and possibly some cash. In January 2010, after Lee refused to pay up, Pyongyang threatened to launch a “holy retaliatory war.” Two months later, North Korea sank the Cheonan. Eight months after that, it attacked Yeonpyeong-do, in the middle of the putative “peace zone.”
Similarly, in early 2015, Pyongyang proposed that Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong-un “meet each other and discuss ways toward peaceful reunification,” following Kim Jong-un’s speech calling for “fresh headway in the national reunification movement for this year.” We probably don’t know Pyongyang’s complete list of demands, but one was “freeze-for-freeze,” an idea calculated to degrade the readiness of U.S. and South Korean forces. No summit occurred. Then, in August, North Korean soldiers planted mines that blew the legs off two South Korean noncommissioned officers. Almost immediately, conspiracy theories blaming the U.S. for the incident sprang up all over the internet, probably as part of a disinformation strategy I like to call “implausible deniability.” For a few weeks, the world was wracked by war fears until Park Geun-hye “de-escalated” them through talks that yielded an agreement that gained the North valuable concessions on paper (though we can be thankful that these amounted to almost nothing in practice). You should expect to see more like this in the coming years, unless sanctions work quickly enough to force Pyongyang into another charm offensive.
If influencing what South Koreans think is a political prerequisite to Pyongyang’s strategic gains, then getting the U.S. out of Korea is the strategic gain most necessary for hegemony over the South. Eventually, Abrahamian gets around to admitting that might be on Pyongyang’s agenda.
What North Korea might want at this point is to decouple the alliance between South Korea and the United States, hoping that Washington over-reacts to Pyongyang’s new capabilities. This over-reaction might take the form of acting too aggressive and causing Seoul to question – perhaps even take steps to terminate – the alliance. It might be by provoking some kind of military action that turns Northeast Asian public opinion against Washington and leaves America isolated in the region.
It might be getting a favorable peace deal that removes U.S. forces from Korea.
I’m not here to defend Donald Trump’s bombast, and I’m glad we’ve heard less of it lately. I’ve criticized it for scaring our friends more than it scares our enemies, and I’ve argued that it will alienate people inside North Korea we should be appealing to. Trump’s speech in Seoul may have done him some good, but most Koreans probably still don’t like him. For the time being, and in spite of their personal feelings for Trump, they still like their country’s alliance with the U.S.
[N]uclear weapons are primarily about deterrence, not forcing one’s will on others…. Yet H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, has led the charge to claim otherwise. Multiple times in the last several months he has made comments such as, “classical deterrence theory, how does that apply to a regime like the regime in North Korea?”
Just like we deterred the attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyong-do, the Sony cyberattacks, the 2015 landmine incident, the Kim Jong-nam VX murder, nuclear and chemical proliferation to Syria, multiple threats against journalists, and half a dozen international assassination plots? What price did Kim Jong-un pay for any of those crimes?
Kim Jong Un is a rational actor, however. He may make imperfect decisions, but he wants to enjoy life and grow old.
Roll your mental odometer back to early 2010 and ask yourself two things. First, could you have imagined that North Korea would, with premeditation and malice aforethought, sink a South Korean warship and kill dozens of young sailors? Second, could you have imagined that North Korea would get away with that, with no form of retaliation, accountability, or even a serious U.S. effort to enforce sanctions? (You can ask yourself the same questions about the Yeonpyeong-do attack or the Sony cyberattack.) After the Cheonan attack, conspiracy theories circulated that sowed widespread doubt among South Koreans about Pyongyang’s responsibility. In the National Assembly election that followed weeks after the attack, the left-wing opposition actually won more seats, although it’s by no means clear that those conspiracy theories, North Korea policy, or the attack were major election issues (which is still disturbing). After the shelling of Yeonpyeong-do, the mayor of Incheon even suggested that by holding military exercises near the Northern Limit Line, the South sort-of had it coming. A rational actor analyzing those reactions would not only feel perfectly free to engage in further provocations at that level, but also to escalate them now that his nuclear arsenal deters us. Kim Jong-un has made some imperfect decisions (his eating habits, most obviously) but these attacks were, in retrospect, perfectly sound and rational calculations of his risks and rewards.
He wants his state to survive and to negotiate that survival with its southern competitor-state. And the United States has effectively deterred far more potent nuclear-armed enemies for decades.
The converse is also true: Pyongyang has deterred the U.S. for decades. One might even pause to ask why it needs a nuclear ICBM when its artillery was already enough to hold Seoul hostage. How does decoupling the alliance make any sense except as a prerequisite to a coerced negotiation for full implementation of the joint statements on Pyongyang’s terms? And how would that negotiation go with Moon Jae-in? If past history is any guide, a lot like the 2007 Joint Statement or Moon’s negotiation with China over THAAD — with no one really knowing exactly what Seoul gave away, but being fairly certain that it gave away too much. Suspicions about Moon have run high in Washington since he cut a deal with Xi Jinping not to deploy any more THAAD batteries. This should have been an alliance decision. It’s a significant gain for China, which also wants to decouple the U.S.-Korea alliance. Given who Moon Jae-in’s closest advisors are, Pyongyang has every reason to believe that it could get other significant gains from Moon at America’s expense. I can’t seem to harangue any journalists into reporting Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok’s past leadership of a radical pro-North Korean student group that tried to firebomb the U.S. embassy in Seoul, so I suppose it’s just as pointless to say that Moon has just appointed another ex-member of this same group to his cabinet.
[T]he idea that North Korea wants to reunify the peninsula by force is based largely on their propaganda. Indeed, their newspapers and educational materials do pine for unification. North Korean slogans do claim that “final victory” is nigh and that they must achieve “unification for future generations”. But North Korea’s propagandists claim a lot of things.
Mr. Abrahamian has certainly believed plenty of things Pyongyang has said, and I’ve believed a few myself, but they aren’t the same things. The difference is that the things I believe are better corroborated by Pyongyang’s behavior than the things he believes. I’ve already explained why Pyongyang’s war of skirmishes only makes logical sense as part of a malign strategy, and no logical sense as part of a strategy to gain aid, engagement, improved relations, diplomatic recognition, and the mere preservation of the status quo. That’s why I need better evidence than the insistence of someone who believed in Pyongyang’s siren song of glasnost and perestroika for so long to disregard the best evidence of its intentions — its words, with the essential corroboration of its behavior, and the testimony of at least one high-level defector.
Phase 3: One Country, Two Systems
South Koreans who supported the 2000 Joint Statement so enthusiastically must have understood that coalition would eventually require some compromises on their part, too. Even South Koreans who dislike politics and prefer not to think about North Korea at all (most of them, based on my anecdotal observations) must know that nothing matters more to Pyongyang than the enforcement of its personality cult. Surely they, or former members of Kim Dae-jung’s cabinet like Moon Chung-in, must have understood that such a compromise would necessarily involve ceding some autonomy to a coalition that would expect them to accept a less democratic government and some restrictions on criticism of North Korea — for the sake of peace, naturally.
I know it may all seem nutty to you and me, but it doesn’t seem nutty to Hankyoreh readers. A typical example: “As soon as possible, we have to build an economic community, ‘North-South confederation,’ in which the South and North’s economy, culture, and art are united.”
Six months into his presidency, Moon Jae-in’s awareness of his political constraints has limited his outreach to Pyongyang. This has clearly frustrated an impatient Kim Jong-un. Of course, some caution would be necessary on the part of any South Korean leader trying to implement or build on the joint statements. Of course, most South Koreans are warier of Pyongyang than they were ten years ago. Of course, Moon remembers how the revelations about the “peace zone” came back to embarrass those who had served in Roh’s cabinet. Of course, he remembers how his proposal as Roh’s Chief of Staff to solicit Pyongyang’s view before abstaining from a resolution condemning the North at the U.N. for crimes against humanity was a speed bump on his path to victory over a hapless, divided gaggle of opponents. Like any good politician, he wants to protect his public support and build a legislative majority. Without those things, he can’t do much of anything.
One sign to watch for would be if Pyongyang will again demand that a select-but-growing number of South Koreans — initially members of left-leaning unions, and maybe eventually, schoolchildren — visit the North to pay tribute to Kim Il-sung. It has already demanded that Seoul stop accepting North Korean refugees. If you’ve been paying attention, Pyongyang and the hard left have emphasized this as if Kim Jong-un’s survival depends on it. Of course, Moon Jae-in can’t go along with that openly, but if Roh Moo-hyun could find ways to do it quietly, so can Moon. Under Roh, South Korean consulates hung up on defectors who called. There have been periodic leaks of defectors’ personal information, which could make them easy prey for North Korean agents to coerce them into “re-defecting.” Is it any wonder why so many North Koreans have moved on to more welcoming countries?
As for Pyongyang’s final goal, you don’t have to take my word for that. Read it for yourself as a North Korean official explained it here, or at the end of this post, or as summarized here. Or, read this April harangue on the “three principles of unification,” with its particular emphasis on the importance of achieving national unity by silencing Pyongyang’s critics. As you read it, ask yourself if these are the words of people who don’t really mean what they say. Simply stated, Pyongyang wants to impose censorship to “eradicat[e] the distrust and antagonism between” North and South, remove U.S. forces, and get on with forming a confederation under its domination. The fact that I’m having this argument with well-informed people even now only raises my estimate of the plan’s chances of success, by reaffirming how continuity bias and wishful thinking can still blind intelligent people to what’s right in front of them.
This hypothesis explains a lot of Pyongyang’s conduct that other, more accepted theories don’t. From Pyongyang’s perspective, the plan is rational and plausible. If Pyongyang has identified the same cultural, political, institutional, and personal vulnerabilities I see in South Korea — particularly if viewed through the messianic groupthink that’s expected of the people who advise Kim Jong-un — it may have a plausible hope of success. Again, the provocations since 2010 don’t make sense if Pyongyang’s goal is what most academics have long misjudged it to be — opening, reform, and improved relations with the outside world. All of that conduct must seem mysterious and inexplicable to believers in a Pyongyang Spring that never came; it makes perfect sense to those who believe Pyongyang’s strategy is to use threats of tension and war, and the lure of improved “inter-Korean relations,” to silence its critics, manipulate opinions and elections, extract strategic concessions that would make South Korea economically and militarily vulnerable, and draw South Korea into a one-country/two-systems coalition that gives it all the benefits it wants (money, hegemony, prestige, the removal of a political rival) and none of the risks and costs it doesn’t (a major war, occupation, cultural pollution).
The Power of Wishful Thinking
Finally, let’s touch on the question of predictive judgment. In the footer bio of his article, Abrahamian describes himself as “a visiting fellow at the Jeju Peace Research Institute [who] used to help run a nonprofit that frequently took him to North Korea.” Presumably, this refers to Choson Exchange, whose website still lists him as an “Associate Director of Research,” and which for years ferried batches of North Koreans to Singapore to teach them economics, business, and law to stimulate their inevitable progression toward true capitalism, reform, and openness. Plainly, things haven’t worked out that way.
In 2011, a year after the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks, Abrahamian co-wrote of the special economic zone at Rason, “While it may be too early to say whether the region will succeed in drawing investment and reform, our recent trips to Rason lead us to believe that developments on the ground may eventually warrant a shift in foreign policy by governments around the globe.” Got that, governments around the globe? In 2013, a still-hopeful Abrahamian told a reporter for The Guardian that while the North Koreans were “avoiding saying reform or opening [up], … that’s what it amounts to – a crack at any rate.” In February of 2015, he still spoke of “palpable energy and excitement” among North Korean officials about special economic zones. This is more modest than “I have seen the future and it works,” but it’s still at great variance with the evidence of the regime’s resistance to openness, which was already clear enough to see from outer space.
In December of that year, Anna Fifield of The Washington Post, who is by turns the most wonderful and the most exasperating reporter writing about North Korea today, wrote a sympathetic story on Choson Exchange — not one critical view was included — headlined, “North Korea wants to open up its economy, and a small program in free-market Singapore shows how.” The evidence for the falsity of the first clause of this headline is far too voluminous for one link, but if you know what a darling Choson Exchange has long been to journalists and professional scholars, you might not even bother sweeping against this tide.
I can’t have been the only one who wondered how the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the Ministry of State Security, or Bureau 39 would let any North Korean not on their own payrolls go abroad to interact with foreigners. Could there be any exceptions? Yes, there was one “Mr. Kim, head of the technology and trade research department at the State Academy of Sciences,” which page 260 of this Library of Congress study (unlike the Post) informs us was the organization responsible for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Eventually, it’s admitted that “the presentations all revolved around state-related businesses,” presumably including the man peddling “a big, flashy ring that … channels sunshine and purifies the blood, stripping out the lipids that cause high cholesterol.” On second thought, maybe this isn’t such a sympathetic a story at all.
Another question I may be the only one asking — if this is North Korean capitalism, what is this improving on again? But then, I’ve never bought into the theory that capitalism inevitably leads to political reform or peace. The members of the Board of Directors of I.G. Farben received war crimes convictions, not Nobel Prizes. The Marxists have even granted North Korea a special exemption from Old Major’s dogma that capitalism inevitably drives nations to war. I’ve never accepted that North Korea is strictly socialist at all, rather than just economically totalitarian (just as it’s totalitarian in every other sense). To Fifield and Abrahamian’s credit, one eventually reads some mumbled concessions that Pyongyang still had “little to show for” its much-vaunted special economic zones, and that it faced “serious financial and reputational challenges” in attracting investors.
My point here is that the character and history of the regime ought to have made the failure of the engagement hypothesis predictable, and to some of us, it did. Being right then doesn’t necessarily make me right now, but it means I have a model of North Korea’s incentives and behavior with a stronger (and sometimes, eerily strong) predictive record going for it. I certainly wouldn’t take Mr. Abrahamian’s word over what the law would call admissions by a party to the case. The second point of which is that some journalists have an inexhaustible appetite for irrational optimism about North Korea. The opposite seems to be true of getting them to face up to the most rational pessimism.
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Again, I’m not arguing that Pyongyang’s plan will necessarily work. Maybe the current hesitation of the South Korean public and the toughness of the Trump administration will hold (strong sanctions enforcement has solid bipartisan support, for now). Maybe the real Moon Jae-in isn’t as extreme as everyone he’s surrounded himself with for the whole duration of his political life, or as naive as he often seems to be. A bad election result could cost him or Trump the political support they’d need to advance their policies. The greatest wild card may be that, whatever South Korea’s problems of political cohesion, the North is showing signs of a much worse one among the rural poor, and within some unknown segments of the elites. This might open the way for a genuinely productive implementation of the joint statements, unification, and a lasting peace; or, it might incentivize Kim Jong-un to act even more rashly to implement them his way while he still can. His strategy will take time that he might not have if his money runs out first, or if his Crocodiles or the people suddenly turn on him.
The answer to all of this isn’t war; it’s helping Koreans to see the truth and distinguish it from lies. As I’ve argued before, we are where the last three presidents left us; all we can do now is pursue the strategy that carries the lowest risk of catastrophe. That strategy begins with a clear-eyed understanding of Pyongyang’s strategy, taking it seriously, and devising a strategy to disrupt it. It means preparing the Korean and American people for what may come — mentally, economically, and materially. And as Abrahamian says, yes, we’ll need to solidify the alliance. Trump needs to stop tweeting and making threats, and Moon needs to stop going behind our backs and act like an ally. I’m pessimistic about our capacity to deter more attacks even if we identify new means of deterrence, including the expansion of economic warfare and subversive information operations that scare Kim Jong-un without risking a catastrophic miscalculation that a “limited” counterstrike might. In the medium term, we may develop and deploy better defenses against missiles and artillery, which means we need to buy time, too.
It also means South Korea needs to strengthen its institutions. It needs multi-party reforms to de-politicize the NIS into two professional organizations that can earn the public’s trust — one for foreign intelligence and one for domestic counterintelligence (it bears emphasis that a reform process must not be used to halt embarrassing investigations or to pack the NIS with any party’s loyalists). It means reforming Korea’s libel laws by making truth a defense. It means protecting journalists who criticize politicians, investigate government malfeasance, and help the public separate truth from smears and conspiracy theories. It means enforcing government records laws with strong legal penalties for destroying evidence or obstructing justice. It means reforming the National Security Law to stop prosecuting those who engage in nonviolent speech and instead focus on the aggressive-but-fair pursuit of incitements to violence and foreign influence, particularly among government officials and teachers. It means strengthening rules of evidence and empowering defense lawyers to challenge the evidence against their clients zealously. And like governments everywhere, Korea must be prepared to relax its obsessive secrecy when the public needs to know the truth to make sound decisions about matters of public interest. Like many societies, including ours, Korea needs to mature in how it adjudicates information and passes judgment. If it can’t, the next few years may end the greatest economic and cultural bloom in its long history.