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North Korea Talks: Here's What a Pragmatist Could Hope For

North Korea Talks: Here's What a Pragmatist Could Hope For

Friday, 20 April, 2018 - 08:15
It's been confirmed that CIA Director Mike Pompeo held direct talks with Kim Jong Un in North Korea, and negotiations between Kim and President Donald Trump really do seem in the offing, so we need to ask how such negotiations might actually succeed.

There are indeed reasons to be optimistic, but not because I see high odds of striking a workable deal with the North Korean totalitarian regime to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Instead, the best realistic scenarios would have the North Korean leaders deciding to carve out a more normal existence for their nation. Talks can help create or hasten that outcome.

The case for pessimism is not hard to see. The North Korean regime is notorious for conducting and then stalling negotiations -- and then proceeding to violate agreements -- as a tactic to buy time to build up weapons of mass destruction. There is a very real danger that, two years from now, there will have been plenty of talk but North Korea will have developed high-quality intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable of striking Europe or North America accurately.

So if time appears to be on the side of the North Koreans, and America does not seem on the verge of a preemptive attack (nor would I recommend one), what is the cause to be optimistic about the outcome of talks?

First: The North Korean regime has never been bureaucratized in the modern sense of that term. While we don't have comprehensive information, it seems that until recently Kim as leader had not been going abroad, nor had he been receiving many visits from other heads of state. His position and perhaps his mood has been one of extreme isolation, and he is not surrounded by anything resembling the US State Department or even the old-style Soviet bureaucracies that managed foreign policy for the USSR. The rest of his regime is probably poorly informed about the extent of American military superiority, should a conflict come to pass.

By meeting with other foreign leaders, the North Korean regime would be forced to build up its basic processes for dealing with the rest of the world. That in turn creates interest groups and flows of information (some of which invariably leak out). The North Korean populace responds by thinking more about the outside world, making it harder to control by propaganda. In turn the North Korean leadership may decide to continue economic liberalization.

One need not count on an "End of History" story culminating in liberalism and democratization. The more modest hope would be for the North Korean leadership to become more decentralized, more bureaucratic, better informed and harder to marshal behind crazy military measures.

The unspoken goal of engagement would be to encourage North Korea to evolve into a more banal and more predictable form. That is the natural flow of most bureaucratic organizations, so in this regard American negotiators actually have time on their side. The North Koreans are going to change a lot more than the US is likely to.

Second: Kim is only human and has to be thinking some about his own life. Does he want 40 or more years of lining up officials and executing them? These days the headlines are about K-pop in North Korea, such as when the popular girl group Red Velvet performed for Kim and his wife early in April. It turns out that Kim is quite the fan of South Korean popular culture -- long banned for his people, with brutal enforcement.

Another good sign is that Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed to go to Pyongyang for further talks with Kim. And in addition to these explicitly political contacts, Kim visited China's technology hub Zhongguancun, where he was the recipient of much attention and he tried on virtual-reality headsets.

Perhaps this leader would personally prefer more cultural and economic exchange with South Korea, China and the West.

Given that Kim studied in Switzerland (and perhaps crossed a few borders incognito), he is hardly a stranger to foreign travel and contacts, but this is the first time he is enjoying the perks of being a leader abroad or receiving others. Is that not a superior and indeed more stable existence than ruling the Hermit Kingdom? Let's hope he sees that. Think of any diplomatic talks with North Korea as a big act of theater -- designed not to fool him, but to teach him that theater itself can be fun.


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