Here’s some news from North Korea you may not have heard: In recent meetings, the ruling Korean Workers’ Party elected Pak Pong Ju, an economic reformer, to its Political Bureau, which steers political, policy, and personnel decisions, and downgraded the role of the military by reducing its representation. Pak was made Cabinet premier. On April 5, even as North Korea warned foreign diplomats it couldn’t guarantee their safety, the front page of Rodong Sinmun, the country’s newspaper of record, was dominated by headlines urging faster economic development. News outlets that rely on clandestine reports from inside North Korea suggest that preparing for war has given way to preparing for spring planting.
Just because Kim Jong Un has no interest in starting a war doesn’t mean he can’t stage a dangerous incident. The first task of the U.S. is to respond to any military provocation in a firm but measured way. Some proponents of a “get tough” approach dream that isolating the North Korean regime will force its sudden collapse. They should be careful what they wish for. The result would be humanitarian chaos and huge economic costs. Before reunification, West Germany was two to three times richer than the East. South Koreans are somewhere from 15 to 40 times wealthier than their counterparts to the north, and estimates of the cost of reunification range as high as $5 trillion—almost five times South Korea’s GDP. Most South Koreans are in no hurry to pay that price.
Making North Korea’s nuclear disarmament a precondition for talks with the U.S. about a permanent peace treaty is unrealistic. Kim has no incentive to give up the one thing that seemingly keeps the U.S. at bay. At this stage, it’s wiser to pursue the “three noes” advocated by Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory who has visited the North many times: “No more bombs, no better bombs, and no export.”
Fortunately, the North Koreans have created an opening for just such a tack in diplomacy. The decision at the country’s top political meetings to focus simultaneously on economic reform and a bigger nuclear program amounts to what Korea watcher Stephan Haggard of the University of California at San Diego calls “fundamental illogic”: Foreign investors won’t put money into a country that’s hurling nuclear threats and fighting sanctions.
The task ahead is to convince North Korea it can realize its hopes for economic growth only by putting its nukes back in the box. In the short term, this may mean giving in to the Kim family’s latest round of blackmail. Set against the hundreds of thousands of deaths a conflict could bring, that’s a small price to pay for the regime’s eventual, orderly demise.