The most depressing aspect of the current North Korean crisis is that even if Donald Trump wins, he loses.
Despite doubling down on his rhetoric of “fire and fury” and deriding his predecessors for failed negotiations, Trump looks like he wants to eventually strike a deal with the nation’s tyrant, Kim Jong-Un. Just look at what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is doing. Trump threatens war and Tillerson promises no regime change. Remember it was only a few months ago that Trump said he would be honored to meet with Kim. The president’s recent bellicosity aims for deterrence and leverage.
In substance, if not style, this is very similar to how past administrations have approached the Hermit Kingdom: threaten, cajole and bargain. “This is Obama plus,” Michael Auslin, a Korea expert at the Hoover Institution, told me. “It’s the same path of enhanced sanctions with the potential carrot of direct negotiations and trying to reassure our allies. There is not much different here.”
And it’s easy to understand why talks are better than war. The prospect of a military confrontation is too horrific. North Korea effectively holds its neighbor to the south as a hostage because of its conventional military capabilities. This says nothing of allies like Japan, or U.S. forces stationed on the peninsula.
And the critics of war are correct. A pre-emptive strike is not worth the risk. But neither is another deal.
There are a few reasons for this. First, the North Koreans don’t keep their promises. Nearly every commitment the regime has made to the U.S., its allies and China, it has violated.
It’s no mystery why North Korea continues to negotiate. The nation needs help from the outside to survive. The regime has pursued nuclear weapons as an insurance policy to stay in power, and since the 1990s U.S. administrations have enticed Pyongyang with fuel shipments, removing sanctions and promises to leave it alone. In exchange, Pyongyang makes empty promises about nuclear weapons. An agreement with North Korea makes America and its allies a partner in the regime’s oppression of its own people.
And this repression is beyond the pale. A U.N. report from 2014 estimated there are 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners who are slowly starved, tortured and subjected to forced labor in four prison camps so large you can see them in satellite images taken in space. This says nothing of the public and private executions in…