With North Korean missiles once again flying, President Biden no doubt hopes his administration’s soon-to-be-completed North Korea policy review will produce a coherent strategy to deal with the threat emanating from Pyongyang. But what the Biden team must recognize—and what its policy must account for—is that there may not be a coherent strategy on the other side.
There is a strong tendency among U.S. policymakers to attribute to Pyongyang a pristine strategy to preserve the Kim dynasty and advance its interests on the Peninsula. With one person in control, it’s tempting to assume North Korea’s national security decision-making must be unified and disciplined.
But the truth is there’s no Metternich in Pyongyang. For sure, North Korea has interests and desires. And, for sure, regime officials deploy cryptic talking points and no shortage of bluster.
But what I came to understand in my time negotiating with the North Koreans is that the code with which they speak hides no concrete plan. Behind the rhetorical artifice, there’s no strategy.
This is a significant reason why North Korea, over the decades, has backed itself into a corner no country would consciously choose: a sick economy at home, no real friends abroad, and a government whose survival is cruelly tied to an ever-increasing need to oppress its own people. This is also why reaching an agreement with North Korea has proved so difficult.
Good strategy depends on two things. First, it requires a capable bureaucracy that can survey the international landscape and prepare realistic policy options for the leader. Second, it requires a decisive leader. Neither of these requirements currently exists in Pyongyang.
To put it mildly, the array of government and party organizations in North Korea don’t work well together. They are siloed, underresourced, and paralyzed by rivalry and paranoia.
At times, I saw these divisions bubble to the surface. On one occasion, amidst a long and boastful soliloquy in a stuffy room on the 27th floor of the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang, one North Korean official openly denigrated the abilities of a competing ministry. In an unguarded moment over a meal, another official asked with thinly disguised contempt how a rival performed in separate negotiations, fishing for compromising information.
These instances of indiscretion surprised me at first. But I soon saw they reflected underlying dysfunction—a dysfunction that is largely by design. In a totalitarian dictatorship, a weak bureaucracy too busy fighting amongst itself won’t be able to fight and depose the dictator.
But it also means the system can’t produce anything resembling good policy recommendations. Driven by literal self-preservation, North Korean officials have little incentive to support any policy that could be criticized by their internal rivals as “soft” on the West or as lacking confidence in the country’s current economic and military posture.
As a result, North Korea’s ministries don’t seek avenues of diplomatic engagement that might produce better strategic outcomes. They instead look for excuses not to engage and fall back on the same outmoded economic and security models North Korea has adopted for decades.
But even if the bureaucracy were effective, it would still labor under North Korea’s most significant affliction: indecision at the top.
In recent years, we’ve seen Kim Jong Un seemingly go all-in on diplomacy only to draw back from it. We’ve seen him threaten a long-range missile “Christmas present,” then take his finger off the button. We’ve seen Kim refer to South Koreans in one breath as “compatriots…linked by blood” to their Northern brethren, but in another praise the dramatic detonation of an inter-Korean liaison office.
Many say Kim is merely playing the world—keeping us off balance with contradictory actions. He may even tell himself that.
But it’s more likely that Kim is wracked with indecision. He knows what he desires: development, legitimacy, security from outside interference. But he doesn’t know how to achieve those ends. He isn’t able to assess the options and tradeoffs available to him because none of his aides is honestly telling him what they are. And would Kim accept the reality of those tradeoffs if they did?
So Kim lurches from action to action, conciliation to provocation, and now into apparent paralysis—unable to chart a clear way forward.
Where does this leave the Biden administration?
First, they shouldn’t overinterpret North Korea’s actions and statements. Too often, policymakers infuse the few signals coming out of North Korea—no matter how puzzling—with strategic meanings they cannot possibly support. Instead, the Biden team should be calm in the knowledge that North Korea’s actions often don’t have a consistent intention behind them.
Second, the Biden team should not fear going over the heads of North Korean diplomats and the rest of the bureaucracy. That doesn’t necessarily mean a summit or even a public message. But the Biden team should be creative in establishing unorthodox channels to seed ideas—whether they be inducements, warnings, or new negotiation mechanisms—directly into Kim’s inner circle, if not with Kim himself.
Last, it’s healthy to recognize what U.S. policy alone can achieve on the Peninsula—and what it can’t. The United States has immense capabilities to establish deterrence, apply full-spectrum pressure, and outline for North Korea the strategic rewards that would accompany denuclearization. We can—and must—do all these things.
But we can’t decide for the North Koreans.
The regime’s internal failings have persisted for two generations. Now, a decade into the third, we’re still waiting for the regime—and Kim himself—to overcome them.
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