North Korea: Know thy enemy

It should come as no surprise that the North Korean leadership’s ultimate goal is regime survival.

THE world let out a collective sigh of relief earlier this month when a much-anticipated and feared sixth North Korean nuclear test never materialized. But as the dangerous display of geopolitical theater continues to take anxiety-producing twists and turns, the Trump administration ought to spend less time taunting Kim Jong Un and more time getting to “know thy enemy.”

As someone who has clocked scores of hours as a U.S. State Department official across the negotiating table with the North Korean government and who has been on Korea-watch since leaving the Clinton administration in 2001, my great fear is that our current leaders and policymakers are not listening to those who know the North best.

President Donald Trump’s erroneous statement that Korea was once a part of China and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s assertion that a U.S. policy of more pressure, more sanctions and a reliance on China is a fundamental departure in U.S. policy (it’s not; it’s a failed policy from the early 2000s) are the latest examples of just how little those in positions of power understand the two Koreas.

If we are to avoid another catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula — or a future North Korea capable of firing a nuclear weapon at Seattle, San Francisco or Los Angeles — it is high time the administration starts doing its homework.

A key lesson is asking why the North Korean regime is doing what it is doing. It should come as no surprise that the North Korean leadership’s ultimate goal is regime survival. To accomplish this, it has steadfastly pursued three objectives that are perfectly rational if seen through the lens of the regime’s strategic interests: prevent foreign attack and intimidation; preserve the national myth of the regime’s historic destiny; and improve the country’s desperate living standards for elite segments of the population.

North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program plainly advances the first two objectives — the bomb makes up for its rapidly deteriorating million-man army, and possessing it shows its citizens that the regime is an “elite member” of an exclusive international club.

Less obvious is the role the program plays in the North’s economic thinking. Many forget that during his first public appearance as leader, Kim Jong Un promised his people better times. More nukes means more leverage for North Korea to extract…

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