Last month, Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jon Un, was murdered in the Kuala Lumpur airport. The James Bond-style assassination, complete with an elaborate conspiracy and poison swabs, has received tremendous media coverage. In South Korea, cable news has covered it breathlessly for weeks. There has been much debate over what we have learned from this event. But it strikes me that actually we have not learned that much; assassinations, terrorism, criminality, lying, and so on are part-and-parcel of this regime. February alone saw two such acts – a missile test (prohibited by United Nations resolutions), and this killing. The correlate policy insight then is why we should expect North Korea to behave any differently when it negotiates? This issue has arisen yet again, as we go through the regular, new US president ritual of whether we should talk to North Korea or not.
Talk is cheap
The most obvious case for engaging North Korea is that it is effectively costless. Diplomats meeting in a conference room somewhere – Beijing or at the UN usually – is hardly expensive. Indeed, states maintain diplomatic corps precisely for such reasons. So why not? What is the harm of chatting and seeing what comes it? We can go into such talks with the necessary high levels of skepticism, be on our guard not to get suckered, and otherwise double-check or double-verify any concessions they agree to make.
Unfortunately, even talking with North Korea is not so simple, for talking to Pyongyang is a kind of concession in itself. By agreeing to talks, we:
- Recognise, however implicitly, that North Korea is a genuine sovereign actor, not an errant part of a unified Korean republic;
- Let North Korea off the hook, however implicitly, for actions, such as this assassination or its constant violations of UN sanctions, actions which should isolate it;
- Impart North Korea international prestige simply by allowing it to interact with weighty states like the US or China; and
- Give it a potential smokescreen to buy time to continue its nuclear and missile programs.
All of these are important regime goals and, critically, none of them require the talks to lead to any concrete outcome.
The US and China likely enter talks instrumentally; that is, they see talks as a means to an end. But for North Korea, the talks themselves would be a pretty good end, even if they go nowhere. Dragging them out serves the goals listed above. Perhaps negotiation’s end goals – denuclearisation for a peace treaty, for example. – are attractive to the North as well, perhaps not. It is hard to know. But it is obvious that international negotiation in itself is valuable for the North. This is something I do not believe engagement advocates recognise enough: just sitting in a room with North Korean diplomats is in fact a concession to them and serves their interests. This is why the North Koreans are constantly calling for talks. Even if they do not intend to take them very seriously (maybe they do; it is hard to know), the North Koreans always want to meet.
So talk is not really cheap
It is worth unpacking the four gains I suggest above: First, talking to North Korea implicitly recognises it. The two Koreas are in a long-term battle of attrition and legitimacy. South Korea is clearly winning that contest. Just as West Germany during the Cold War increasingly came to be just ‘Germany,’ so South Korea is becoming the Korea one references when one says ‘Korea'. East Germany and North Korea require the directional adjectives, because it has became increasingly accepted that they were illegitimate, aberrant parts of a larger whole lying elsewhere. This legitimacy crisis ultimately undid East Germany. When East Germans were finally given the free vote in 1990, they overwhelmingly voted for unity, and therefore the destruction of their own state. North Korea faces the same dilemma, and every time we engage it, we reinforce its existence as a real state rather than the Orwellian, mafioso fiefdom it actually is.
Second, North Korea should be isolated and forgotten for all its awful behavior, like Zimbabwe or cold war Albania. Yet we talk to it despite its terrorism, crime, UN violations, and so on. This sends the obvious signal that it can act with impunity. Why not kill Kim Jong Nam in broad daylight if there are no consequences?
Third, just as North Korea desperately seeks recognition that it is a real country, so it seeks international status. Its news agency, the Korean Central News Agency, constantly speaks of other countries respecting its heroic accomplishments, sending congratulations to it on its national holidays, or organising committees to study its juche philosophy. KCNA regularly takes umbrage at ‘insults’ to the ‘dignity’ of its leader or state. Pyongyang routinely insists on high-level foreign dignitary visits to fish out western prisoners, because it wants the photo ops. The North Koreans even hacked Sony Pictures over a forgettable, mediocre movie that showed Kim Jong Un in a unflattering light. For a state as small, backward, and otherwise irrelevant as North Korea, it captures a huge amount of global attention, which talks with powerful states like the US or Japan only reinforce. All this can be marketed domestically to legitimise the state and the glorious Kim family to its people.
Four, talks allow North Korea to continue with its illicit programs without fear of disruption, because kinetic action against it is presumably off the table during periods of negotiation. Dragging out discussions is thus an excellent way to buy time to finish a missile or reactor, while simultaneously claiming – truthfully or not – that all issues are up for debate. Pyongyang has done this before. During the Sunshine Policy and the Six-Party Talks periods, North Korea did not stop its nuclear or missile programs, and when those efforts collapsed, Pyongyang was that much closer to a nuclear missile.
Strategic patience is not so bad after all
For these reasons I have repeatedly defended the Obama administration’s ‘strategic patience’ approach, while arguing that South Korea should harden itself to win a long-term, grinding conflict of attrition. Little in North Korean behavior suggests that it takes talks, commitment, or international norms seriously. The February events have underlined this once again. And talks with North Korea come with the implicit costs to the democracies sketched above. On the other hand, kinetic action against North Korea is terribly risky. While it is now fashionable to deprecate ‘strategic patience,’ there are good reasons why it has been de facto US and South Korean policy for decades.