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Is Trump posturing in pursuit of a deal with North Korea? Eli Lake, writing in Bloomberg, sees parallels with the actions and rhetoric of other U.S. presidents that eventually led to negotiations.
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."
And it's easy to understand why talks are better than war. The prospect of a military confrontation is too horrific. North Korea effectively holds its neighbor to the south as a hostage because of its conventional military capabilities. This says nothing of allies like Japan, or U.S. forces stationed on the peninsula.
And the critics of war are correct. A pre-emptive strike is not worth the risk. But neither is another deal.
There are a few reasons for this. First, the North Koreans don't keep their promises. Nearly every commitment the regime has made to the U.S., its allies and China, it has violated.
It’s no mystery why North Korea continues to negotiate. The nation needs help from the outside to survive. The regime has pursued nuclear weapons as an insurance policy to stay in power, and since the 1990s U.S. administrations have enticed Pyongyang with fuel shipments, removing sanctions and promises to leave it alone. In exchange, Pyongyang makes empty promises about nuclear weapons. An agreement with North Korea makes America and its allies a partner in the regime's oppression of its own people.
Lake holds no illusions about a deal with North Korea, but he thinks the far better track is to encourage revolution.
The patient part of the policy should be a combination of sabotage and deterrence. North Korea should understand their provocations bring consequences. Those consequences though should be tailored to target the leaders of North Korea and not its broader economy. This means making it harder for Kim and his henchmen to spend and keep their fortunes. It also means accelerating intelligence operations aimed at gumming up the regime's illicit supply chain for its missiles and nuclear facilities. The next time the regime tests a missile, let's hope it blows up on the runway.
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.
North Korea may be the most regimented society in modern history. Only the Spartans rival them in world history. This regimentation, coupled with brainwashing under threat of death, makes any kind of "revolution" outside of a military coup a fantasy.
How could a revolution succeed in a country where the people are so thoroughly and completely cowed and manipulated that they wept hysterically at the death of Kim's father, Kim Jong-il?
Not much of a chance for a revolution there.