A North Korea Solution: Take Kim Out of the Loop

A Q&A with Philip Bobbitt on game theory, nonproliferation strategy and a deal between the U.S. and China that can end the global threat.

Looking for attention.

Photographer: Keith Bedford/Bloomberg

"I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un." In uttering those words earlier this month, President Donald Trump managed to take U.S.-North Korea relations, which have long existed deep inside some Foggy Bottom opposite day, exuberantly through the looking glass. And yet, it all kinda makes sense.

For decades, Trump staked a place on the periphery of American culture while despising the elites for denying him a position at the center of it. For even longer, the Kim dynasty has felt the same way about the "international community" that has denied it legitimacy. The elites have now had their comeuppance, and even the least elite among them (a.k.a. yours truly) has to admit defeat in a battle we never knew was being fought.

So what does Kim really want?  

My best guess, based on deep study of that masterful documentary of contemporary East Asian affairs, "Team America: World Police," has always been: a little attention. There are other good guesses of course: international respect, peninsular reunification, the end of the world, and so on.

But I've struggled to find anyone who discerned a difference in motivation between the current Great Leader and his ancestors, or that put the North Korean menace into a decidedly contemporary context.

And then I stumbled across an essay in Time magazine by an old acquaintance, Philip Bobbitt, that made a radical suggestion: keep Kim out of it, because his destabilizing presence (like that of South Korea, Japan, Russia and anyone other than China) unnecessarily complicates matters. Instead, let Washington and Beijing make the world a safer, or at least saner, place on their lonesome.

Why take it seriously? Bobbitt has been both a part of, and an antidote to, the foreign-policy cognoscenti for decades. Currently a law professor at Columbia, he has served in all three branches of government over seven administrations, including director of strategic planning at the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. His books, notably "The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History," are required reading for anyone who wants a comprehensive yet unorthodox understanding of global security challenges. And he makes a lovely chicken-salad sandwich, as I found out when we had a long chat at his apartment overlooking the East River in the company of his Jack Russell terrier, Hogan. Here's an edited transcript:

Tobin Harshaw: So, what prompted you initially to write the piece that ended up in Time?  

Philip Bobbitt: The idea arose from my dissertation at Oxford on U.S. extended deterrence in the European theater.

TH: What year was that?

PB: I got my Ph.D. in 1983.

TH: Okay. I see the connection: That was right at the height of the Pershing missile debate in Europe.

PB: Exactly. That was all about extended deterrence. My thesis was two-fold. One, that changes in American declaratory strategy were attributable to extended, rather than central deterrence -- that the Americans oscillated between high-threshold, total response and lower-threshold, more limited responses not because of any threat to the U.S. homeland but as a way of trying to reassure the Europeans that we would not become … “decoupled” was the phrase.

TH: What was "decoupling"?

PB: That was the problem of the Americans abandoning the Europeans, because they didn’t want to risk losing New York City to protect Bonn. There is the second problem, sometimes called “uncoupling,” where the Soviets and the Americans are in tacit agreement, confining nuclear war to the European theater.

TH: We were willing to “fight to the last German.”

PB: That’s the phrase that was used. I had worked on the subject academically, and later in the U.S. government. So when I, like everyone else in this country, was looking at the North Korea situation and the sense of hopelessness about it, I began to think about the role that deterrence could play in nonproliferation.

Back in the days of my graduate work, the targeters, the defense intellectuals, the people interested in deterrence, really did not have much to say to the non-proliferators, who tended to be engineers and scientists, and more interested in arms control than in targeting.

But I believed then, and I continue to believe, that the great success stories of nonproliferation weren’t Ukraine, Kazakhstan, South Africa and Brazil and Libya, but Germany and Japan; states that had this enormous technocracy, that had the wealth, that had the bureaucratic technocracy to develop their own weapons -- and who faced a mortal threat. Those are these huge non-proliferation successes, and they were wrought through extended deterrence.  

TH: I’m part of what I think is the dominant school of thought on North Korea at the moment -- that we’re going to have to learn to live with it.

PB: We’ll call that containment.

TH: Containment, very passive containment. But in your Time piece you say, flat out, this is unacceptable.

PB: Right.

TH: So why is a nuclear North Korea less acceptable than, say, the USSR in the Cold War?

PB: It really has to do with the history of conflict in World War II, in Korea, and the partition at the time of the Korean War. I don’t know that the Soviets -- or China -- would have been such a reliable counterparty if they were trying to reunite their own country. If they had the kind of ethnic solidarity that the Koreans feel so intensely, coupled with hostility to so many other states. Now there are many other factors. The Soviet Union is a huge country, China is a vast country.

TH: And China did have Taiwan, that it perhaps hopes to reunify with.

PB: And which might still be a problem for us. If you say, why in the world would China, this immensely successful society, even engage in these reckless provocations against Taiwan? Why do they need Taiwan? Well, it’s that exactly: the reunification of the country.  

TH: So that goal is what is what makes the Kim regime such a unique threat? 

PB: What they’ve done is quite unusual. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall comes down, and all of these client states are looking for a new berth, because they’re no longer getting Soviet subsidies, North Korea decides to turn inward rather than outward. So it’s not like the former states of the Soviet Union, it’s not like the Warsaw Pact states, it’s not like Vietnam. It makes a decided choice to go in the other direction and for some time, this belt-tightening, if you want to call it that, which resulted in something like 10 percent of the population dying of starvation, is driven by this sense of unique purpose and historic woe: We’re starving because we have a mission.

Then, China’s enormous success after 1989 presents another option. Why not latch on to the Chinese and let them carry North Korea into their own economy? Or at least bring them into the supply chain for China, which uses Taiwan and Vietnam and South Korea. This seems to have been, for Kim Jong-il, a realistic alternative. So when the current leader, Kim Jong-un, comes into power, the regime is proceeding along two separate tracks. One is this war footing, which justifies these great sacrifices. And the other is to pursue economic growth in tandem with the Chinese people. Kim Jong-un seems to have decidedly turned away from that. He is no longer of two minds; he has aligned himself solely with one option: a military confrontation with the United States.

TH: Which brings us, I think, to the point of your recent writings. The idea is that the U.S. and China would negotiate -- bilaterally -- to have the Chinese bring North Korea under their security umbrella, in return for North Korean denuclearization. So how did you get there?  

PB: What I’d like to see initiated is a kind of Helsinki process that ends the Korean War with a formal treaty. During the Cold War, the Helsinki Accords recognized the countries’ borders in Europe. To do this in Asia would mean not just North Korea’s borders but South Korea’s borders and Japan’s borders, Vietnam’s borders and so on. And it would exact from the various parties a commitment to denuclearization. But it depends on the offer of a nuclear guarantee from China to the North Korean regime.

TH: So, after the Time piece ran, you got a note from the risk analyst Woody Brock, right?

PB: Horace Brock is, as you know, is a very celebrated applied mathematician. He was a protégé of Kenneth Arrow and John Harsanyi. He wanted to draw attention to the work of Reinhard Selten, who wrote a very famous paper in the ’60s called "When 4 Are Few and 6 Are Many." This is an analysis of the behavior of cartels, and particularly the impact of the number of players on the stability of the cartel. Selten proved that the probability of the players agreeing to the terms of the cartel was almost assured, up to four players. If there were five players, the probability of each player’s joining falls to 22 percent, and for six or more members, the probability of the cartel holding goes to zero. I think what Woody was thinking was that the six-panel talks, which I have advocated in the past and which could be a model for a Helsinki-type process, cannot achieve denuclearization. It’s only by reducing the number of players to two, in this case China and the U.S., that you get stability. I did some work in game theory, both in graduate school and when I was in law school. I’m a great admirer of many important figures, but I always thought that game theory was more useful as a heuristic than as a guide to particular policies. But Selten’s work isn’t like that. Selten’s work is really quite precise, and there are a wealth of historical examples in various industries supporting it.  

TH: It’s a nifty idea: that this long, impractical problem could be solved, or put on a path to a solution, through simply scaling back the numbers of parties involved. However, you have to get buy-in from the parties that are being excluded, and the parties that are going to continue need to want to take it upon themselves. So, first of all, what is the appeal of this to China?

PB: The most common reactions I got, from experts in the field and former senior officials, were that the Chinese will never do this -- and if they did, the North Koreans will never accept it. A great idea for the classroom, but not going to happen in the real theater. So, I wrote a paper for Lawfare, on why the Chinese would want to do this. I argued that they too face a choice, not so urgent perhaps, between being a hostile power outside the international community, and being a player. Now obviously, they have a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, they have an enormous economy, they are immensely influential at G-20.  

TH: Obviously “Belt and Road,” is a huge attempt to become part of the greater world as a whole.

PB: Exactly. But until you are at the table on security matters, you really are not playing in the most important game. To be able to calm the fears of Japan and South Korea, and bring stability to this -- to say nothing of participating in any new Helsinki -- I think it would be very attractive to the Chinese.

TH: The second part of this is how would they force a potentially reluctant North Korea to go along with this?

PB: I don’t think they can. I think the idea that China, either by withholding oil or through sanctions, can influence North Korea toward denuclearization is just wishful thinking. The key lies in Pyongyang itself.

I think what needs to happen, in Kim’s mind, is for him to see that he is at the apogee of his influence right now. He’s got the attention of the world, he can extract a guarantee from the Chinese. He can have his borders secured by a Helsinki-like process. But that’s not always going to be true. There is going to come a time, because of the limited size of this arsenal and the rapid advances in damage-limiting strikes that we are still experiencing, when he will reflect on this moment as the time he should have made a deal.

TH: So the third party that’s got to buy in of course is the U.S. Anyone can picture the advantages of taking care of the Kim threat and getting that off the table. However, this would, I think in many people’s eyes, empower a far greater potential long-term threat in the Chinese. What do you say to those who would feel this is a big risk for the U.S. and, as you admit in one of the pieces, could even increase the chances of conflict between the two countries?  

PB: I don’t think there’s any way of avoiding that. I think you have to look at it right in the face. This isn’t the likeliest flashpoint between the Americans and the Chinese. But I can see how this might lead to a higher risk for us, because we now have to face the possibility of China’s retaliation. Having said that, China has a no first-use policy, the risks to the U.S. are certainly no greater than the risk to China itself, and, third, we are proceeding right now in a fog, because the Kim regime doesn’t know what the red lines are for the U.S., which if crossed, would trigger some kind of military response. That’s partly because they are the Hermit Kingdom. I think they’ve made great strides participating at the United Nations and elsewhere, but they do not deploy a huge diplomatic corps the way China does.

TH: Do you think, as a matter of both strategy and self-protection, the U.S. should have clearer red lines?

PB: I do, and the reason I say that is because the North Koreans are sounding quite confident these days, and I think the rationale for that confidence is easy to overstate. I don’t mean it just to intimidate them, but I think we need to have some clarity, so that they don’t stumble into some kind of conflict. Now, I’m not a historian or a strategist who believes that we stumbled into World War I. I don’t think the war started because of timetables, or mobilization schedules. But that doesn’t mean that states don’t stumble into war. And that is most likely to happen when one side is unaware of what the stakes are for the other side.

Having said all that, I do feel as though maybe the most difficult element of this, strange as it sounds, isn’t the Chinese regime, but maybe what’s happening in Washington, where things seem to be a little muddled.

TH: By that, are you talking simply about Trump’s tweets and braggadocio?

PB: Yes.

TH: Or are you talking about policy as well?

PB: Well, I’m not used to this sort of, shall we say, rather spontaneous diplomacy. And if you’re moving great states and historic patterns, it’s hard to see how you could do that with little fits and starts. But the policy seems to be to try to force the Chinese to force the North Koreans to denuclearize. And I believe not only that that’s hopeless, but I think as long as you are addicted to that particular drug, you will never take a hard look at the kind of proposals that I’m making. You’ll always say: "Oh well, things might change, they might see the light." I just don’t know if that’s realistic.

TH: Let’s say that approach -- my approach -- continues to win out, and we just keep down this path of learning to live with it. Do you see South Korea and Japan nuclearizing -- and if so, would that be a good or a bad thing?

PB: If we continue down this path, I foresee many ugly outcomes. One may be that the South Koreans will be intimidated, that they will be persuaded that the Americans will not protect them, and that when North Korea makes a threat and the U.S. offers a counterthreat, the South Koreans will say, "No thank you, please don’t give us any help." Because they fear escalating the conflict with the North.

Another possibility, by no means inconsistent with that, is that the South Koreans and the Japanese will arm themselves. For some of the reasons that Woody Brock talked about, a multipolar, nuclearized Pacific is a nightmare, and I think people who say, "Well, the U.S. and the Soviet Union got along fine, we would just have other pairs of mutually deterring states," have really not thought about that. It is a recipe for real catastrophe in the 21st century.

TH: And with all of the attention on North Korea, no one is much thinking a whole lot about what could potentially go wrong with India and Pakistan right now. I mean, we’re sitting on these time-bombs everywhere.  

PB: And you have the issue of the security of the arsenals. If North Korea does not make the kind of arrangement that I am proposing, the time will come when they’ll have to put themselves on some kind of launch-on-warning, hair-trigger model, and that is immensely dangerous. A migratory bird, a launched cruise missile, these things could all start a real nuclear confrontation.

TH: What about reunification? Do you think that either side actually wants it?

PB: I do.

TH: Both?

PB: I think both sides want it, but I think that North Korea has a very, very high price. They want reunification on their terms. They don’t want to meet the South Koreans halfway, they don’t want a mixed society, they don’t want a mixed economy. They want to perpetuate a dynasty, and I don’t think the South Koreans have that vision. Having said that, if the proposals of the kind I propose were successful, they take a lot of the pressure off states that are fearful of reunification. I don’t know that anybody realized it at the time, but Helsinki leads directly to German reunification.

TH: Absolutely.

PB: And building confidence among the states of Central Europe and Eastern Europe, that their borders were secure, was a necessary first step toward reunification. Now, the Korean situation is very different from the German situation, but it does support the idea that a process like Helsinki has unforeseen benefits, which were ignored by the more cynical commentators at the time, who were very skeptical of it.

TH: My skepticism was based more on, well, we saw how difficult it was for the West Germans to integrate the East Germans. Imagine how difficult, how incredible it will be, for the South Koreans. I just can’t imagine that there aren’t a lot of South Koreans who would just rather not deal with it.

PB: I’m sure that’s right, but there’s a remark attributed to Lenin: "There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen." I can imagine -- not today, not this year, not even this decade -- a time when perhaps owing to a change in leadership in North Korea, that there’s just going to be a sudden explosion of people crossing the border. Civilians, not armies. People who want to reunify their culture. If that happens, then decades will happen in weeks.

TH: Correct. Well, as we saw in Europe. Let's turn to the Olympics. Do you think this little mini-breakthrough or mini-thaw, with the two nations marching under one banner, is of any significance at all, or is this just another sort of momentary bright spot that will mean nothing in the long run?  

PB: A little of both, I think. Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Day speech was very respectful towards the South Koreans. The Olympics gesture is one that puts them on a pedestal of equal stature and dignity. So, yes, I think it is a very positive step. Having said that, if we’re talking denuclearization, forget it. We’re talking about the Olympics, we’re not talking about their dealings with a weapons broker.

TH: Last, we’ve come to the one-year mark of the Trump presidency. Most people in your world, our world, entered this year with great trepidation about his legendary inconsistency and irrationality. The one place in which he has been most inconsistent, irrational, and roiling the waters has been North Korea. And yet, there’s a sense that he has made change more likely, after decades of same-old-same-old. Do you see things that way?

PB: It’s too hard to say. You know, after events like these occur, and some long period goes by and historians get access to the state papers, we still can’t agree on what actually motivates a state to make certain decisions. I would say the lesson of last year is that the American security establishment -- the intelligence agencies, the Defense Department, the State Department -- have been pretty steady, despite some erratic news coming out of the White House, and that’s very reassuring. We tend to equate nations with their leaders. But the American security establishment has tens of thousands of leaders, very sophisticated people managing teams of diplomats and analysts and soldiers and sailors, and that still seems to be rock steady.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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