Sunday, January 21, 2018

On North Korea: Thinking about Thinking

Personally, I am sick of talking about North Korea. Just across the demilitarized zone, we have the world's 12th largest economy, a powerhouse of global pop culture, that is about to host the Winter Olympics. Why bother with North Korea?

But North Korea is in the news, which means I get a steady stream of North Korea-related questions on this blog. This is another occasion where I should remind you all that I am just a guy with a blog. All I have to go by is the news, which is available to you just as much as they are available to me. I have no special information to offer.

What I can offer, however, is a framework of analysis; how to think about thinking, when it comes to thinking about North Korea. This alone can be valuable, because much of North Korea analysis involves no thinking, but only reflexes to the latest stimulus. 

On Jan. 21, 2018, North Korean advance delegation arrives at South Korea
For example, the latest coverage about North Korea is its participation in the Winter Olympics, the North Korean team marching under the same flag with the South Korean team during the opening ceremony, and so on. It should be obvious that all of this is inconsequential. The two Koreas have competed jointly in the world athletics off and on since 1991, when a single Korean team played in the World Table Tennis Championship in Japan. These joint appearances have never moved the needle on the inter-Korean relations in either direction, but people keep talking about them because hey, we have to keep talking about North Korea somehow.

Instead of a reflexive reaction, we can choose to think deeply. And deep thought requires a firm establishment of the first principles, in reference to which all the events on the ground and our policy choices are to be assessed. In my view, there are three fundamental questions that establish the first principles about North Korea. They are:
1. May the North Korean state continue to exist?
2. May the Kim Jong-un regime remain in power?
3. Is a war acceptable in the Korean Peninsula?
On the first pass, most people--including most North Korea analysts--would answer "no" to all three questions. Kim Jong-un regime is a murderous dictatorship; no one wants to appear as if she is supporting the regime. A war, which is likely to be a nuclear war, is horrifying beyond imagination, and no one wants to sound like a warmonger.

It is also the case that most people are not honest with themselves.

(More after the jump.)

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In answering these three questions, we must be deeply and rigorously honest to ourselves. It is not enough to be in favor of humanitarian principles, the Korean reunification or peace in the Korean Peninsula in the abstract. Deep, rigorous honesty requires that your real answers to the three questions are actually reflected in the policy choices you make.

For example, many people might say the Kim regime is intolerable, but they also want the status quo to continue because they are afraid of the consequences if the North Korean state collapses and the Kim regime is toppled. In such a case, their answers to the first two questions are dishonest. The true answers are: "Yes, the North Korean state and the Kim regime should continue to exist, because we fear the alternative." To these people, the Kim regime is perfectly tolerable as long as the status quo is maintained.

Many hawks want isolation and sanctions until North Korea gives up its nukes. They, too, duly recite the pledges that the Kim regime must go, and that there can be no war in Korea. And they, too, are dishonest--because they have nothing to say about what ought to happen in the Korean Peninsula after North Korea denuclearizes. For them, the true answers are: "Yes, the North Korean state and the Kim regime may continue to exist as long as they give up nuclear weapons." 

The hawks are also usually unwilling to consider any peaceful engagement with North Korea, either directed to the North Korean regime (in the form of bilateral talks) or the North Korean people (in the form of cultural/economic exchanges or aids.) If you are adamant that the Kim regime must go and the North Korean state must cease to exist, but are unwilling to consider any peaceful engagement with North Korea at any level, your real answer to the third question is: "yes, a war may be acceptable in the Korean Peninsula if the Kim regime refuses to surrender"--knowing full well that the Kim regime will not surrender just because you really want it to.

The doves, wanting to avoid a war, usually argue that North Korea can be deterred from using its nuclear weapon. They, too, may offer pieties about the Kim regime's humanitarian abuses. But make no mistake, because their real answer to the first two questions are the same as the hawks: "North Korea and the Kim regime may continue to exist, as long as they do not start a nuclear war." Because really, have they got anything to say about North Korea other than its nuclear weapons?

My answers to the three questions are firm. No, the North Korean state cannot exist, because the division of the Korean Peninsula is a historical tragedy that must be rectified. No, the Kim regime cannot continue, because it is a murderous dictatorship. And no, there cannot be a war in the Korean Peninsula for any reason, because the consequences are too terrible.

In my view, these answers make my policy choice clear. I need a course of action that makes the North Korean state disappear, the Kim regime out of power, while avoiding a war. This leads me to choose the original Sunshine Policy envisioned by Kim Dae-jung in his Berlin Declaration: an aggressive engagement policy designed to destabilize the North Korean state and the Kim regime while having zero tolerance toward military provocation.

If you have a better idea that gets rid of the North Korean state and the Kim regime while avoiding a war than the Sunshine Policy, please tell me, because I will be all ears. What you cannot do, however, is to be dishonest about your first principles. Do you want to maintain the status quo, because you think the cost of eliminating the Kim regime is too high? Then you are really saying the Kim regime should continue, regardless of the fact that it is a murderous dictatorship. Do you want no peaceful interaction with North Korea at all, while desiring the Kim regime to disappear? Then what you really want is a war.

This framework is helpful because it keeps everyone honest. It makes you honest to yourself by allowing you to separate an actual policy goal versus the empty hopes and dreams that you will abandon just as soon as the going gets tough. It also reveals the true intentions of the pundits who bloviate about North Korea. It doesn't matter what lip service they give to high-minded principles; if they say nothing about how to make the North Korean state go away, how to make the Kim regime go away, and how to prevent a war from happening in the Korean Peninsula, they are making their first principles abundantly clear.

Again: I don't have a great answer for North Korea. But the truth is, neither do most people you see on television or read in the papers--or even most of the people who are actually in charge of formulating and implementing policies. All we can do is to think deeply with the information available to us, and talk to each other to exchange ideas. Clear thinking allows us to think better and have a more honest conversation, the best things we can do as we think about one of the most complex conundra of international affairs.

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  1. As ever, thank you for the lucidity.

  2. IMO the sticking point is: how long will it take for Sunshine to dismantle NK? Without a reasonable guess as to what that might be, and a solid argument to back that estimate, you will be unable to avoid accusations of dishonesty also.

  3. IMHO you have not considered that some people, some organisations or even some countries think: we want the status quo not bc we are afraid of the alternative but bc the existence of NK and two separate Koreas are financially beneficial to us.You know, like the ancient romans said: tertius gaudens. Who would like to be the beacon of entrepreneurship and the boosting economy in the area?

  4. The Sunshine Policy was a complete failure when it came to changing the DPRK regime. All it did was gave them millions of dollars that they have used to make nuclear weapons. North Korea participation in the Olympics is a huge coup for them. They have not stolen the winter Olympics, as much as Seoul has given them away. NK wanted to march under the unified Korean flag, and now they are doing it. Everything Pyongyang wants, they get! Just because the ROK is richer does not mean that it will win this war. Bit by bit the ROK becomes less legitimate, and has less authority vs. the DPRK state. All that money and development is meaningless when it is just given away. Ask yourself, "Is the south more secure then it was 10 years ago?" The answer is no.

    1. 10 years ago, the conservative administration came to power in South Korea and the Sunshine Policy ended. So thank you for showing the world how little you know.

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  7. Thats the first time Ive seen that description of the Sunshine Policy but all it demonstrates to me is just how much of a complete failure it was.

    Far from destabalizing the NK regime, the Sunshine Policy only served to prop-up it up and give Kim Jungil more time to develop his nuclear arsenal. On top of that, some of the worst NK military provocations against the South occurred during the Sunshine Policy period. Despite these, Seoul's handouts and unconditional support for the North continued. Hardly a zero tolerance policy.

    I dont claim to have a sure-fire solution to the NK problem but a return to the Sunshine Policy certainly isnt the way to go. Any engagement with NK, including cultural and humanitarian, only supports the existing regime, because they are only permitted if the regime allows them, and they are strictly under their control. Cultural engagements are reduced to a farce that only gives the regime legitimacy and positive publicity it does not deserve and NK does not allow the kind of monitoring needed to ensure humanitarian aid goes to starving children instead of feeding soldiers.

    In my opinion, short of starting a war, there is no sure-fire way that external actors can remove the NK regime. The only way to remove Kim Jungeun and this regime without war is through an internal uprising by North Koreans against the state or perhaps a coup by a splinter group among the ruling elites. That being said I also think there is a lot external actors can do to help precipitate this kind of event.

    First and foremost sanctions targeting the regimes financing need to be strengthened further and continued longer. If Kim Jungeun has less resources it will weaken his internal security apparatus and he will not be able to keep the elites happy.

    Second, information ops targeting the North Korean general population should be started in earnest. Flood the country with cellphones, look for ways to get them internet access that is not controlled by the state, drop in loads of USBs and DVDs with news from the outside world and South Korean entertainment. Additionally through these operations we need to show the NK people that the international community supports them, in opposition to the brutal regime they live under. And finally, North Korea should be more strongly condemned by the international community for its human rights abuses and be banned from joining any international cultural, sports, or other events citing their human rights abuses as grounds for doing so. This might seem simply symbolic but I think it would send a powerful message to the NK people that the intl community does not tolerate their leadership and its actions.

    I find it disgusting how the Moon administration is tripping over itself in a rush to secure the North's participation in the Olympics. This only gives Kim Jungeun and the NK regime legitimacy and recognition it does not deserve, and I guarantee that it will not bring the peninsula even one inch closer to peace.

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  9. Sorry to say, but I think Mr Hussey has the best approach, and if I had to make a policy choice, that's what it would be. Sanctions is really the only tool left for precipitating change in North Korea. Can it happen without provoking war? That's a 50/50, but the policy itself is not war, and since it may precipitate regime change (though not in the short term), then that would be the policy I choose. Can it happen without violence? Most likely no, because violence is at the heart of the regime, violence against its own people and outsiders, and it will likely not change without violence. Using sanctions to provoke change will perhaps limit the violence to elite actors and their troops, but it won't eliminate it altogether. The fact is, there are no good choices here. Restarting the Sunshine Policy will only bolster the current regime, and should not be pursued. And I say all this as one having relatives in the South, and who fears for them if there should be a war. But I don't think we should let fear disable us to the point where we choose policies that benefit a clique of gangsters and murderers, rather than policies which have a chance of toppling them. I think too that much more could be done to get information into the North, not just about some idealized democracy, but about actual life, including the difficulties, in real democracies.

  10. CBC News
    As Olympics open door to reunification, young Koreans are tuning out:
    South Korea's conciliatory steps haven’t been as popular as government hoped

  11. "an aggressive engagement policy designed to destabilize the North Korean state and the Kim regime while having zero tolerance toward military provocation."

    The obvious problem with this is that there's no evidence that the aggressive engagement of the Sunshine Policy produced even the slightest destabilization effect. Not an iota.

    North Korea quickly figured out the aim of the policy and manipulated it for their own benefit. They duped the South into shoveling cash and resources their direction while minimizing the effects of any actual engagement. They successfully filtered out the Sunshine and kept the cash spigot open at the same time.

    Sunshine failed, and the North Korean regime is far too smart to allow themselves to be destabilized by such a transparent and easily defeated gimmick.

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