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Breaking the Pattern of Provocation, Outrage, and Escalation in Dealing With North Korea

Kim Jong-un's long game isn't suicidal annihilation, it's to remain in power.

Stop me if you've heard this one: North Korea has tested a new weapon. The United States and assorted allies have responded with strongly worded statements and a show of symbolic military force. The Kim Jong-un regime takes deep and dramatic offense and declares its enormous superiority.

We all briefly consider whether our homes are in a likely target area and, if not, how well we'd fare in a post-apocalyptic economy. And then everything goes back to normal until the North's next weapons test.

U.S. tensions with North Korea have settled into this regular pattern of provocation, outrage, and escalation. Pyongyang has fired 17 missiles in 11 tests since President Trump took office, making the outlined script a regular feature of the news cycle. The holding pattern is set.

But what if it isn't? Serious and repeated reports indicate the Trump White House is reviewing a wide range of options for dealing with North Korea, including forcible regime change entailing, in Trump's words, "major, major conflict."

The appeal of intervention is obvious if we interpret Pyongyang's persistence in developing nuclear weapons as a signal that Kim intends to do the unthinkable—to nuke a major urban area in the United States or perhaps South Korea or Japan—but a more sober assessment shows that interpretation is dangerous and simplistic.

The Kim regime is, of course, appalling in its inhumanity. The good impulses of those who advocate external military intervention to safely free the populace are admirable, though it cannot be reiterated enough that their proposal would almost certainly end in what Defense Secretary James Mattis has called a "catastrophic" war with "the worst kind of fighting in most people's lifetimes."

Kim rules over what has been justly called "the rape and defilement of an entire nation, a systematic and refined evil that only the human genius at its most perverted can produce." The evidence suggests his main goal is to continue doing so, to continue leading the comfortable (and apparently cheese-obsessed) life of a dictator safe from external regime change.

A credible nuclear arsenal is his best insurance for that goal. Kim is not suicidal; he is power-mad. Both derangements are dangerous, but they are not the same.

The better way to understand North Korean machinations is as a "huge game of blackmail," Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, a military historian, says. For all its posturing, Pyongyang is "an exceedingly weak and arguably very fragile regime" whose "principle objective is to remain in power," he says.

The point of all these weapons tests and bluster is probably not about actually nuking the American mainland, but rather manipulating far more powerful nations—South Korea, Japan, China, and, most importantly, the United States—into unwittingly and unwillingly maintaining a status quo with Kim in power.

As seen in this latest test, for example, Kim targets his missiles for the Sea of Japan, avoiding Japanese air space. This is a show of strength which doesn't amount to a concrete threat. The move is calculated to protect Kim's position.

A review of the most recent weapons test cycle is instructive. On the Fourth of July, the Kim regime triumphantly tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), technology that could theoretically carry a nuclear weapon as far as Alaska (whether it could really carry the weapon is at this point unclear). The test was fêted with a spectacle of tap dance and song in North Korea, but elsewhere reactions were less than celebratory.

After conferring with President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, President Trump pledged joint action against North Korea. He sent U.S. bombers on a flight—seen by the North as provocative—over the Korean Peninsula.

He warned Pyongyang he's considering "some pretty severe things" in response to this "very, very bad behavior." On Twitter, he marveled Kim doesn't "have anything better to do with his life."

But the whole point of the test is that Kim does have things he wants to do with his life, namely, to continue being in power. Kim wants the bomb because he thinks it will "ensure that anyone considering imposing regime change won't take the risk," argues Harry J. Kazianis at The Week. He tested ICBMs on Independence Day because he believes that is how he stays on top of his hermit kingdom.

The lesson here may be a difficult one, but one Trump can grasp. For all his inconsistency, Trump has repeatedly expressed an openness to direct diplomacy with North Korea. "If it would be appropriate for me to meet with [Kim], I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it," he said as recently as May.

Whether direct Trump-Kim talks are the wisest course is subject to debate, but Washington must trade saber-rattling for conversation with Pyongyang. This is a critical step in the right direction.

The alternative—to continue to the current cycle of escalation without any dialogue—is a dangerous game, making ever more probable the "major, major conflict" no party of this dispute really wants.

This is a road of grave miscalculation and catastrophic result, but it is a road we do not have to take.

Photo Credit: KCNA

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a contributing writer at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

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  • damikesc||

    Solid idea.

    Now, how does one have talks with a country that seems almost pathologically incapable of honoring an agreement. It's not like EVERY SINGLE MEMBER OF THIS FAMILY hasn't fucked over basically anybody who ever tried to work with them.

    This whole "He's really super-totally fragile and about to be overthrown" talk isn't backed up with anything resembling evidence or proof. "Strategic patience" should've run out long, long ago. Instead, countries keep on enabling this family of paint-eating retards.

  • Agammamon||

    You don't. You just walk away. But how does a country that seems almost pathologically incapable of not sticking its nose in other people's business do that?

  • damikesc||

    God knows. The "anti-war" Left seems to want us to intervene in Syria on behalf of ISIS against Assad and Russia instead of sitting back and rooting for mass casualties on both sides,

  • Ron||

    "how does one have talks with a country that seems almost pathologically incapable of honoring an agreement"

    I thought you were going to mention the U.S. as the nation who historically has not kept any of its agreements, even with its own citizens

  • BYODB||

    Umm...we paid France for the Louisiana Purchase? I'm reaching here...

  • Ken Shultz||

    Even if half the salacious stories we hear about Kim Jong-un are only half true, we better hope he dies unexpectedly.

    If he finds out he's about to die because of an illness, I'd expect him to Jim Jones the situation--and take as many people (Koreans and Americans) with him as he can.

  • Robert||

    If he tries that, he gets suffocated in his bed.

  • Rhywun||

    Usually when they pull this crap it means they're starving again.

    "Conventional wisdom inside the Beltway will vigorously oppose any plans to dangle carrots in front of Kim Jong-un's face."

    See if they eat it.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "Whether direct Trump-Kim talks are the wisest course is subject to debate, but Washington must trade saber-rattling for conversation with Pyongyang. This is a critical step in the right direction."

    Dialogue for the sake of dialogue is Obama level horseshit.

    Contentious negotiations are won by the party with the most leverage. Kim isn't even worried about pressure from his own people. He can starve his own people to death, and they still won't/can't rise up against him.

    If the only leverage we have against him is the fear of what we might do to him, then we'd be foolish to give up our leverage.

    When the Chinese wanted leverage with Kim Jong-un, they didn't have talks to achieve dialogue. They sent 150,000 troops to threaten the North Korean border.

    http://tinyurl.com/nxv9o7h

    ----Business Insider

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Kim wants the bomb because he thinks it will "ensure that anyone considering imposing regime change won't take the risk," argues Harry J. Kazianis at The Week.

    Gee, I wonder where he might have gotten that idea? It's not like we recently helped depose another dictator after he voluntarily gave up his WMD ambitions or anything like that. /sarc

  • Ron||

    Paying off Kim has not worked in the past, fighting the whole nation is not a wise choice but can be done. We could ignore him but that may actually make him up his dangerous game in order to get notice. so the verbal tit for tat sabar rattling may be the safest route until the North Koreans get tired of little Kim and off him themselves. lets also keep the CIA out of any assination plots since they always fuck up everything and I think they do it on purpose

  • Robert||

    It wasn't long ago that "I would be honored" line was taken here as a bad sign.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Or we couldn you know, simply kill the silly sonofabitch. That works, too. Also costs less, provides a useful object lesson, and doesn't depend on the world of a proven liar.

  • Liberty =><= Equality||

    If he actually follows through on any of his threats against SK, Japan, or the US, the NK regime is getting destroyed. Not sure if he understands this or cares if he does, but his generals probably do understand and care.

    It's gotten to the point where American cities might be at risk only because of the past spinelessness of previous administrations kicking the can down the road.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Stop me if you've heard this one: a rogue regime threatens with a WMD and Reason makes the case for appeasement and another JCPOA which said state will violate on day one.

    It'll work this time. Honest.

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: Trading Saber Rattling For Conversation With Kim Jong-un: New at Reason

    I don't know why everyone is peeing their pants over NK and Mr. Bad Haircut.
    Their military equipment dates back half a century, with the possible exception of their missiles.
    Bismark once commented (and I'm paraphrasing here) that if the British army would ever invade Germany, he would have them arrested.
    That's about how I feel about the NK military.

  • BYODB||


    The lesson here may be a difficult one, but one Trump can grasp. For all his inconsistency, Trump has repeatedly expressed an openness to direct diplomacy with North Korea. "If it would be appropriate for me to meet with [Kim], I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it," he said as recently as May.


    Why don't we just open up trade with North Korea? I mean, can you imagine how cheap an iPhone would be if we only had the pay the workers in enough food for them not to die immediately? Chinese and Indian workers are starting to get it into their head that maybe they should be paid for their work, but Nork workers...that's a bargain!

  • balvinders||

    kim is a danger for entire humanity and world should stand with unity to stop him. china support north korea that's why he is testing his missile on regular bases. its time has come to give a tight slap on north korea and china at a same time.

  • balvinders||

    american fighter jet flew over korea is indicatation about war can be start at any time. Kim is ready and this war can not be forgotten by next 10 generation coz its results will be unacceptable by humanity. This war can be ended up by nuclear weapon, but dont know who will fire first.
    https://www.onlinejobsform.in/

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