Kim’s Nukes Aren’t a Bargaining Chip. They’re an Insurance Policy

Climb into the North Korean dictator’s mind, and you can see that his aim isn’t to destroy Los Angeles but to save his regime.

North Korea looks pretty scary at the moment, firing off missile after missile, threatening to target Guam, and, on Sept. 3, testing what the regime claims was its first hydrogen bomb. And the country’s dictator, Kim Jong Un—so ruthless he may have had members of his own family murdered—might be just crazy enough to push the button to initiate a catastrophic war.

Or maybe not. Look deeper, and you’ll find a North Korea that isn’t as much of an immediate danger to the U.S. as the headlines and rhetoric suggest. That’s because Pyongyang isn’t very likely to use its nukes and missiles against the U.S.—or anyone else.

Don’t get me wrong: North Korea still presents a huge security risk to East Asia and the world. Kim’s neighbors include three of the world’s 11 largest economies and two of America’s closest allies, Japan and South Korea. No U.S. president would want to see Pyongyang lob a missile into Tokyo or Seoul, let alone Hawaii.

Kim Jong Un (right), then North Korea’s leader-in-waiting, claps during a military parade in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on Oct. 10, 2010, as his father, Kim Jong Il, prepares to leave the reviewing platform.
Photograph: Kyodo/AP Images

But climb into the mind of Kim—as terrifying as that may sound—and we can conclude that his aim isn’t to destroy Los Angeles but to save his own skin. This is a regime that was never expected to still be around in 2017. When the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union unraveled more than a quarter century ago, North Korea was supposed to vanish with them. The regime has since outlasted economic and political isolation, stiff international sanctions, and famines so severe that they may have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. But through it all, the Pyongyang government has persisted. That speaks to the cunning of the Kim family, which has lorded over the country since its founding by the current Kim’s granddaddy in 1948. They’re survivors.

And that’s what Kim is striving to do today: survive. He’s not out to conquer the world or even expand his influence in his own neighborhood. Kim and the Pyongyang elite must recognize that the odds are against them and their backs are to the wall. We can assume they’re at least somewhat aware that the forces opposed to the regime—led by the U.S., the world’s superpower—are too overwhelming to fight off on their own. North Korea doesn’t possess the military and economic resources to wage a sustained conventional war.

It’s true that the economy has been showing signs of life. Seoul’s central bank recently figured that North Korea’s gross domestic product grew 3.9 percent in 2016, the fastest pace in 17 years. (North Korea doesn’t release its own economic statistics.) The country, however, remains quite poor. Per capita national income, at around $1,300, isn’t even 5 percent of South Korea’s.

That poverty has taken its toll on North Korea’s military. Although the armed forces boast more than 1 million people, ranking as the world’s fourth-largest, their conventional weaponry is aging and technologically far behind those of South Korea and the U.S. A 2015 assessment by the U.S. Department of Defense said North Korea’s equipment to a great degree is based on Soviet and Chinese designs dating to the 1970s and earlier and its air force has planes of 1940s vintage. The government’s efforts to modernize, the report noted, have been limited.

If a war does break out, Pyongyang could inflict a lot of damage and kill a lot of people, especially in South Korea. Research firm Capital Economics in an August report figured that the Korean War of the 1950s erased 80 percent of South Korea’s national output, and even if a 21st century sequel were to prove less catastrophic, wiping out, say, 50 percent, that alone would still shave 1 percent off global GDP. But North Korea’s chances of fending off a concerted military effort by the U.S. and South Korea are probably quite low.

Nor can Kim count on his main source of support, China, to save the day. Beijing did just that in the 1950s Korean War, when U.S. forces had North Korea all but wiped from the map. In 2017 the Chinese government may not be so willing. An August editorial in the Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper, said that Beijing should stay neutral if Pyongyang were to instigate a conflict with the U.S. That’s not necessarily an official declaration of policy, but it could indicate limits to China’s appetite to defend its longtime ally.

Kim certainly isn’t endearing himself to the Chinese government. His antics are raising tensions between Beijing and Washington, which has upped the pressure on China to control its saber-rattling partner by sanctioning Chinese businesses that allegedly help Pyongyang and has warned more may come. And Kim has displayed a surprising willingness to snub his supposed best friends. The latest nuclear test came on the same day Chinese President Xi Jinping was hosting world leaders at the BRICS Summit in the city of Xiamen and just as Xi is preparing for the all-important National Congress of the Communist Party of China next month, during which he’s expected to further consolidate his grip on the country.

Here’s where the nukes come into play. Pyongyang believes they’re the best, and possibly only, deterrent against evaporation, absorption, or annihilation. That’s why the regime has never been truly willing to trade its nuclear program for other benefits—something Washington has tried to do since the 1990s. The nukes aren’t a bargaining chip. They’re an insurance policy.

Yet the very same weakness that drives Kim’s mania for nuclear weapons is why he can never use them, at least not as an aggressor. As President Trump has already warned, any such attack would be met by “fire and fury.” That comment was irresponsible, but the point is true nevertheless. Kim likely isn’t delusional enough to think his country could survive an all-out war with the U.S. and its allies. Proactively launching a nuclear-topped ballistic missile against the U.S. would mean his own destruction. That’s why it won’t happen. The U.S. Defense Department in its 2015 report said that even though the country remains a continuing threat, “North Korea is unlikely to attack on a scale that would risk regime survival.”

If we see Pyongyang’s motivations in this light, the policy course the Trump administration is taking is all wrong. Threats of fire and fury will only make Kim more paranoid and more certain that he needs nukes to defend himself or deter an aggressive Washington—paradoxically, persuading Pyongyang to press ahead even more quickly with its nuclear and missile development. Note that the more bombastic Trump has become and the closer he seems to inch toward the use of force, the more belligerent Kim has become, to the point of testing what could have been a hydrogen bomb.

That unfortunately leaves Washington with few options. Any hint that U.S. policy is heading toward some sort of regime change won’t go down well with a Pyongyang desperate to survive. Kim & Co. are equally afraid of being swamped in more peaceful ways. Unification with an economically vibrant South Korea will almost certainly lead to the marginalization of Pyongyang’s elite and an end to their influence.

At this stage, with Kim already in possession of nukes and maybe the ability to deliver them, the only viable option for Washington is to accept this reality and deal with Pyongyang as it does with any of the world’s other nuclear powers. This may sound terribly distasteful, and the course presents its own risks—mainly, that North Korea’s neighbors, especially Japan and South Korea, will feel the need for nuclear weapons of their own, leading to a regionwide, potentially destabilizing arms race. Washington would also have to work hard to ensure Pyongyang doesn’t spread its know-how to other rogue states or terrorist organizations that might be less wary of using it—such as Islamic State.

But the U.S. has successfully dealt with the appearance of other nuclear powers, whether China, India, or Pakistan, and it may have to do so again, this time by containing the North Korean threat instead of attempting to eliminate it. Negotiating a settlement with Pyongyang as a nuclear power may actually bring a sort of stability to the peninsula that the U.S. has been seeking for more than 60 years. Maybe then, a less isolated and fearful North Korea will be more open to giving up its nuclear weapons. The time it takes may not be ideal. But it’s a lot better than fire and fury.

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