Virtually every week, politicians and journalists and policy experts attempt the impossible: mind reading. Specifically, they want to know what’s going on inside one man’s mind. They want to know what Kim Jong Un is thinking and, more importantly, what he wants.
It’s impossible to know for sure what another person is thinking. And yet figuring out what the current North Korean leader wants – in the absence of any substantial engagement with him – is the basis of all policy options for how to address the country. These policy options fall into three main categories: military force, non-military force, and diplomacy.
According to one interpretation, Kim Jong Un is fundamentally irrational, so there is no point in trying to negotiate with him. He only understands force. Unfortunately, this is a rather popular misconception.
Even some hardliners who oppose negotiations with North Korea acknowledge that Kim Jong Un has some rational goals. For instance, they believe that the North Korean leader is interested in his own political survival and that of his regime. They believe that he wants to accumulate hard currency, maintain not just the survival of the regime but its ideological and international legitimacy, and defend the sovereignty of the country at all costs including with the use of nuclear weapons.
These hardliners who believe that Kim Jong Un operates according to a certain narrow rationality also favor an approach to North Korea that emphasizes sticks. But they tend to support economic sanctions, in addition to conventional military containment, to force Kim Jong Un to make a rational assessment that maintenance of an aggressive nuclear program will make it difficult to achieve these other goals.
Those who believe that diplomatic engagement is the most effective approach to North Korea must also come up with some understanding of what Kim Jong Un wants. After all, you can’t just say that the North Korean leader wants peace. Or that diplomacy is always a better option than war or economic sanctions. Neither of these positions can persuade governments to sit down with North Korean representatives.
So, here is my attempt to read Kim Jong Un’s mind in an effort to come up with an effective diplomatic alternative.
I also believe that the North Korean leader is focused on his own political survival. He has spent his first years in power consolidating his position by eliminating potential rivals. In this way, he is his grandfather’s grandson: Kim Il Sung also eliminated all potential sources of opposition to his authority. Like his grandfather, Kim Jong Un connects regime stability directly to his own security as leader.
I also think that Kim Jong Un, like his father and grandfather, believes that the key to the future longevity of North Korea lies in negotiating a deal with the United States.
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North Korea has always been uncomfortable about becoming too dependent on China, going all the way back to the Korean War and even earlier. The entire North Korean ideology of juche is essentially a repudiation of an age-old dependency – the tributary relationship of sadaejuui of the Korean peninsula to the Chinese emperor. Moreover, Kim Il Sung built the North Korean state as a fundamentally anti-Japanese country – a repudiation of Japanese colonial occupation – so any relationship with Tokyo can only go so far (and not very far at all during the Shinzo Abe era). Finally, although Pyongyang seeks occasional economic advantage from Seoul, the fundamental competition for control of the peninsula makes any grand deal with South Korea – at least now when the two sides have such wildly divergent economic success – very unlikely.
That leaves the United States.
According to Pyongyang’s worldview, the United States holds the key to North Korea’s future. Only Washington can provide North Korea with the kind of diplomatic recognition it wants at the international level. Only Washington can decrease the military containment of North Korea. And only Washington can make the decision, ultimately, to end North Korea’s economic isolation.
Kim Jong Un wants to lessen his country’s dependency on countries in the region. He wants to push through an economic reform – greater reliance on market mechanisms, more investments in technology, even shifting resources from the military to the non-military sectors – that can strengthen the country’s independence and give it greater leverage in dealing with the outside world.
To date, North Koreans have created their own version of a market economy from the ground up, while the state has entered the global economy on its own terms through black market trade (in various contraband goods) and connecting with international banks (by hacking into them).
Any deal with North Korea must provide the things that the regime wants: capital to rebuild the economy and make the reforms work plus a legitimate relationship with the global economy that can substitute for the largely illegitimate set of ties it currently has.
Of course, North Korea doesn’t just want capital in exchange for its nukes. It wants security guarantees as well. One step in this direction is, of course, a peace treaty that can replace the armistice of the Korean War. But honestly, I don’t think that the North Korea leadership will see a piece of paper as the ultimate substitute for nuclear weapons.
To provide North Korea with that kind of guarantee, any deal must accept a gradual period that phases out the country’s nuclear program. As it whittles down its program, North Korea will have the chance to see if its negotiating partners keep to the agreement (lifting sanctions, providing North Korean banks with training to meet international standards, signing a peace agreement, and so on). Perhaps North Korea will retain a “recessed deterrence” of some nuclear material that can, if necessary, be weaponized in the case of an emergency (much like Japan’s capability).
Such is the basis of a hard-nosed engagement deal. It’s not an easy moral issue. Frankly, I’d love to see both Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump put in jail some day, just like former South Korean president Park Geun Hye. But sometimes you have to choose peace over justice. And the threat of war on the Korean peninsula demands that two otherwise despicable leaders from Pyongyang and Washington talk to each other and figure out a way to give each other what the other one wants.