Watching Park Geun-hye and Barack Obama get owned by Kim Jong Un again, it’s hard not to wonder who’s really insane here.
Conventional wisdom is that the North Korean leader is the nutty one given his propensity for tanking his economy, killing uncles and enjoying the company of Dennis Rodman. Last Sunday, officials in Pyongyang called the South Korean president a “prostitute” and her U.S. counterpart a “pimp” in a wacky diatribe that included claims that North Korea was ready for “full-scale nuclear war.” But it’s the supposedly rational Obama and Park who are failing the insanity test. By calling on North Korea to scrap its nuclear program, as they did yet again last week, the two leaders are doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.
Obama and Park haven’t lost their minds. But, even as Kim threatens a fourth nuclear test, they’re trapped in a Cold War dynamic worsened by George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” policy. Park favors a more enlightened path on the Korean peninsula. She sees reunification as an unprecedented bonanza for Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel. But any possible detente, she says, is contingent on Kim giving up his nukes. It’s too late for that. North Korea has the bomb and, thanks to Obama’s predecessor, Kim is not going to give it up.
By listing three countries as enemies of the U.S., attacking one and threatening to do the same to the other two, Bush pretty much ensured both Pyongyang and Tehran would go nuclear. The Kims and their peers in Iran are convinced they need the only possible deterrent against the kind of U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
So, can we please dispense with this mad idea Kim will disarm? To repeat ad nauseam that the U.S. won’t talk to a nuclear North Korea just is another red line of the kind that hasn’t worked in Iran, Syria or Ukraine.
Instead let’s grudgingly accept North Korea’s nuclear status and focus on what we might actually be able to change: Pyongyang’s belligerent behavior.
Why not refocus John Kerry’s attention away from an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that’s going nowhere? The U.S. secretary of state should be shuttling between Seoul, Beijing and Pyongyang to devise a new peace framework.
A good first step would be to bury the so-called six-party talks, which are the diplomatic equivalent of the failed Kyoto Protocol: long dead, even if no one wants to admit it. Besides, you have to expect any grouping that puts Obama’s people in the same room with Vladimir Putin’s isn’t going anywhere.
Kerry and his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se should ratchet up pressure on Beijing. Xi Jinping’s protestations that he has no influence over Kim is bunk. China has its own, strong reasons for not cutting off North Korea’s supply of fuel. A collapse would send millions of refugees fleeing across the border into China. And besides, Kim’s antics serve to keep Washington, Tokyo and Seoul off balance. But China’s patience is wearing thin — an opening Kerry has been too busy stumbling around the Middle East to exploit.
As my Bloomberg View colleague Jeffrey Goldberg argued recently, where has Washington’s decades-old containment policy in Cuba gotten us? Sanctions haven’t killed the Castro regime. What they have done instead is force 11 million Cubans to live in an economic time warp — all because successive White Houses have lacked the courage to admit failure and change course.
What Kim fears more than the 28,000 U.S. troops in the South is a loss of control over North Korean society. Isolated border-town factories run jointly with the South Koreans are one thing. Letting in mass quantities of iPhones, Justin Bieber CDs and Zara dresses is quite another. Imagine if Group of Seven nations suddenly moved to open trade links with the North.
Why not allow the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to provide aid to Kim’s impoverished masses, so long as they can verify it’s not enriching corrupt officials in Pyongyang? These moves would scare the Dear Leader to death, at least initially.
In January, Park said reunification would allow the peninsula “to take a fresh leap forward and inject great vitality and energy.” But that’s a nonstarter if Park and Obama demand of Kim the one thing to which he’ll never agree. Let’s compartmentalize things. Talk with Kim about opening his economy in return for less erratic and provocative behavior. But drop the insanity about North Korea disarming. It’s time for more rational approach.
William Pesek (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Bloomberg View columnist in Tokyo.