Reading the Last Page First

When I read the title of Eli Lake’s post at Bloomberg View, “The Alternative to Nuclear War Is a Revolution”, I immediately turned to it. Somewhat to my surprise he meant in North Korea rather than here:

The most depressing aspect of the current North Korean crisis is that even if Donald Trump wins, he loses.

Despite doubling down on his rhetoric of “fire and fury” and deriding his predecessors for failed negotiations, Trump looks like he wants to eventually strike a deal with the nation’s tyrant, Kim Jong Un. Just look at what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is doing. Trump threatens war and Tillerson promises no regime change. Remember it was only a few months ago that Trump said he would be honored to meet with Kim. The president’s recent bellicosity aims for deterrence and leverage.

In substance, if not style, this is very similar to how past administrations have approached the Hermit Kingdom: threaten, cajole and bargain. “This is Obama plus,” Michael Auslin, a Korea expert at the Hoover Institution, told me. “It’s the same path of enhanced sanctions with the potential carrot of direct negotiations and trying to reassure our allies. There is not much different here.”

He calls for patience and imagination in our dealings with North Korea:

The imaginative part is to continue to give North Koreans a glimpse of a better future. Tom Malinowski, who served as President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, wrote in Politico in June that the U.S. should continue to flood North Korea with information. This may sound strange. But in recent years, the state’s ability to control information has waned. More and more Koreans living there have access to portable DVD players and cell phones, which are tools to break the state’s control over the minds of their citizens.

That’s actually the argument for normalizing relations with North Korea as quickly and as much as possible, sometimes called the “blue jeans strategy”. It has been claimed that one of the factors behind the fall of the Soviet Union was due to Western visitors bringing blue jeans and other consumer goods in plenty on their trips to the Soviet Union. It gave the lie to the Kremlin’s propaganda claims.

I think he’s underestimating how totalitarian the Kim regime is.

3 comments… add one
  • Gustopher

    Has isolating a country, long-term, ever worked? Is there even one example of it working?

    Cuba is there, being Communist, right off our borders. Iran is still there, being all Ayatollahy. North Korea hasn’t budged.

    If we cannot prod the Chinese to push a regime change in North Korea, and we don’t want to go to war on the Korean Peninsula and have a few nuclear weapons get detonated somewhere (can they really launch them on missiles? Are they accurate? Only one way to find out…), embracing North Korea might be our only option.

    And it’s the less violent option that might lead to China losing its buffer state.

  • CuriousOnlooker

    I think the causation is backwards, in this case North Korea wants isolation – their ideology juche, is about isolation. Their isolation has very little to do with the US.

    If North Korea wanted friends – the Chinese, the Russians would be happy to be friends – but instead the best that can be said is they are not enemies.

    I guess Eli Lake doesn’t know Korea was called the hermit kingdom before there were two Koreas – there is a reason why North Korea has gone a very different path from China or Vietnam.

  • mike shupp

    There’s an argument of sorts that communist states rot over time. The ideology softens, the plutocrats get a bit sloppier about hiding their bling from the masses, the secret police let their waist bands out and sleep late in the mornings, and so on. Russia, China, Cuba, East Germany …. North Korea’s not likely to be odd man out indefinitely.

    I suppose you can counter argue that the US needs its enemies and that our military and political leaders are deliberately doing their utmost to preserve North Korea and Iran and Cuba, etc. for reasons which probably make sense to international bankers if not poly sci students. God knows, there’s 70 years of evidence for that!

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