All signs point to North Korea preparing a bait-and-switch

All signs point to North Korea preparing a bait-and-switch
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North Korea is a small, failed state. There is no other country that brings so little credibility and value to the negotiating table. Yet the regime has for 70 years seized an unparalleled advantage in manipulating a cycle of crisis and negotiation that strengthens its control over its own people and gives it an undeserved place of influence in world events. Despite the enthusiasm surrounding next week’s summit, there are reasons to believe that North Korea’s regime has not changed its ways, and the summit will not succeed.

Repeatedly, for example, in 2000, 2007 and now 2018, North Korea’s mastery of the process of crisis and negotiation has brought some of the regime’s hardened thugs to New York and Washington where the leaders of history’s most powerful democracy implore them to change their behavior. Each time, the North Koreans have spoken of their willingness to promote change and their wish for a better relationship with the United States. Our consistent reaction has been to try to shape a package of benefits that we think should guarantee the success of the talks, and we are then surprised when it doesn’t.


Secretary of State Pompeo, South Korea’s President Moon, and their advisors can be given much-deserved credit for wanting to help Kim Jong Un build a new North Korea. The logic of such an objective is easy for us to grasp: North Korea would be welcomed into the family of nations if it stopped threatening war, and it would be able to use its considerable resources to lift its people from hunger and poverty if it would open itself to international development and trade. South Korea or the U.S. might even foot the bill for infrastructure.

Unfortunately, North Korea is highly unlikely to follow this script, regardless of how committed our leaders are to generously solving North Korea’s problems. If our willingness to improve the lot of North Korea’s population could bring it about, it would have happened many times in the past seven decades.

This is fact: no matter how much we offer, the regime will stymie our best efforts, in the interest of protecting its leader’s tenuous hold on absolute power and total control over its population. North Korea is trapped under the yoke of its own dark totalitarian system. The regime understands something we don’t: it owes its continued existence to fear, not hope. Hope would destroy the regime. Accepting responsibility for providing benefits to the population would call into question the rigid entitlement to power the Kim family asserts for itself.

Some American analysts claim this pattern is changing — that the young, western-educated leader of North Korea brings an awareness of western prosperity and a concern for his people that is diametrically different from the tyrannical impulses of his father and grandfather. He is, they point out, fond of basketball, ski resorts, amusement parks, duty-free shops, stylish professionally-dressed women, and new housing for the elite.

This argument relies heavily on distortions of evidence. For instance, earlier this year, when Kim Jong Un’s sister visited Seoul for the Olympics, she was often described as the first member of the royal family ever to visit South Korea. This falsehood obscures the cyclical nature of such North Korean off-again on-again activities. In fact, their uncle Jang Song Taek visited Seoul in 2002 during a similar charm offensive, and in 1997, an extended member of the ruling family was chased down by North Korean agents and killed just south of Seoul.

Last week, the press ballyhooed the visit to the United States of North Korea’s Kim Yong Chol, making light of his role in numerous heinous North Korean hostilities, and describing him as North Korea’s second-in-command, as though that is a commendable thing. How can sanctions imposed on North Korea be enforced around the world when a North Korean general who is himself sanctioned is welcomed to the Oval Office?

This week, we have been told that a shakeup in the Defense Ministry suggests that Kim Jong Un is removing obstinate hard-liners. The hope is that as we approach the summit, we will see additional indications that Kim Jong Un is ready to modernize his country much as China has been able to modernize.

But if Kim Jong Un were truly dedicated to modernizing the North Korean state, he could hardly have hoped for better advice than his well-traveled uncle, Jang Song-Taek, would have given him. Or that of his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, a self-avowed reformer who wished to duplicate China’s modernization in North Korea. But Kim Jong Un cannot benefit from their support in his reputed liberalization campaign because he had them murdered.

In the current preparations for the summit, what is seldom noted is how few of Kim’s very close advisors have been brought in to witness their leader’s new and exciting approach toward the U.S. and South Korea. The head of the rubber-stamp legislative body (the Supreme People’s Assembly) attended the welcoming ceremony at the Olympics but was sent home immediately after. Only “Princess” Kim Yo Jong and spy-chief Kim Yong Chol stayed to initiate the charm offensive. They are essentially the only two people who have been trusted to deal with Seoul and New York and Washington. (If the butler sent to arrange the talks in Singapore is counted, that brings the number to three.)

This suggests a predictable bait-and-switch is in the cards. Kim Jong Un can rely on these confidants to go along with whatever reversal or deception he chooses to employ — they have no independence from him — and the bag carriers certainly know their lives depend on keeping their mouths shut. When we engage in talks, we send our best and brightest, people who have policy responsibilities; Kim Jong Un sends his most despicable and unswervingly loyal, and they are merely there to carry out his command.

But hope springs eternal, especially in the State Department, where advocates of “engagement” have always fantasized that North Korea is driven by greed and a few simple objectives: North Korea's desire for respect, peace, and financial aid. That view seems to have been adopted by Secretary Pompeo and the president for the time being, but I suspect it may not last.

If nothing else, this summit will establish that President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoe Arpaio loses bid for his old position as sheriff Trump brushes off view that Russia denigrating Biden: 'Nobody's been tougher on Russia than I have' Trump tees up executive orders on economy but won't sign yet MORE has offered North Korea what decades of American diplomats have advocated. Perhaps that will establish with finality the failure of this approach.

Chuck Downs is former deputy director for Regional Affairs and Congressional Relations in the Pentagon's East Asia policy office. From 2001-2008, Downs served on the Board of Directors of the United States Committee for Human Rights in North Korea; in 2008 he was asked by the Board to take over the duties of Executive Director, in which capacity he served from 2008-2011. Downs is the author of “Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy” (AEI Press, Washington, 1999).