Why has North Korea suddenly decided to negotiate with Seoul and Washington, and quite possibly give up its nuclear weapons?
This question has commentators in the West stumped, and so they fall back on the usual self-serving narcissistic America-centric nonsense: Kim Jong-un was so intimidated by President Trump’s outlandish threats that he decided to be a good boy and capitulate. The North Koreans naturally deny this, and their denials are quite credible: after all, the Korean stalemate has been pretty much unalterable since the signing of the armistice in 1953, and there is no reason to believe that this frozen conflict would reemerge as a hot spot – and burst into flame – since both sides would be very badly burned.
Yes, there has been plenty of rhetorical bombast since the North acquired a nuclear capacity and some semi-credible means of delivering a nuclear payload, but in reality this actually lessened the prospect of bombs dropping on either side of the demilitarized zone – for the same reason that deterrence worked to make a nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union unthinkable.
So if Trump’s tweeted bloviations weren’t the cause of the North Korean charm offensive, and subsequent North-South rapprochement during the Winter Olympics, then what is going on here?
There is a lot of evidence that the North Koreans have decided on a major turn toward the West. Although the present opacity of the North gives us only a limited view of what is going on, there is sufficient reason to believe that the last Stalinist regime on earth is on a course of self-liquidation that – they hope – will enable them to survive as a political force in a reunified Korean nation.
In short, Kim Jong-un aspires to be North Korea’s Mikhail Gorbachev: a communist dictator who wants to come in from the cold.
This is indicated by statements coming from both sides prior to the Kim-Trump summit. Here is what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had to say after his first meeting with the South Koreans:
"‘If North Korea takes bold action to quickly denuclearize, the United States is prepared to work with North Korea to achieve prosperity on par with our South Korean friends,” Pompeo said during a joint news conference with [South Korean Foreign Minister] Kang [Kyung-wha].”
It was natural to expect that there would be some kind of economic assistance program for the North if the negotiations succeed. Yet this kind of extravagant promise – to bring the North up to the advanced level of the South – is unusual, to say the least. How could this occur unless the communist dictatorship was neutralized and the two halves of the Korean nation reunited?
Another indication of the North Korean turn toward the West is the announcement by the ruling North Korean Workers Party that their “military first” socio-economic program has been abandoned in favor of an “economy first” initiative. Giving the green light to market forces, which have already taken hold in the North, the regime is moving toward the same economic development strategy as their Chinese neighbors, and while it’s unlikely we’ll hear Kim announce “To get rich is glorious,” as Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping reportedly did, it’s not out of the question.
While we are supposed to think that the North Korean dictatorship is unyielding in its commitment to communist ideology, the Stalinist version of communism has never been averse to compromising in the face of political realities. Stalinism was itself a modification – a compromise – of orthodox Leninism in that it forswore world revolution in favor of socialism in one country. At crucial times Stalinist regimes have made big concessions to the “bourgeois world” in order to ensure their own survival: the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the subsequent alliance with the West against the Nazis are two major examples, but hardly the only ones. In China, for example, the Chinese Communist Party for a time dissolved their own organization and joined Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists in a fight against the Japanese: they did this at Stalin’s suggestion.
This possibility – that the North is seeking de facto self-dissolution as a survival tactic – is reinforced by a seeming anomaly: the North’s statement to the effect that they have withdrawn their objections to the US military presence in the South, at least for the moment. One would think that this demand would be at the top of Kim’s list: but no, they appear to have dropped it, and this comports with the idea that the North may be seeking a fundamental change rather than a simple de-escalation of tensions.
But why would the North Koreans agree to such major concessions when they have the security provided by nuclear weapons and the military stalemate on the Korean peninsula continues? For the same reason their former Soviet patrons gave up the ghost – because socialism doesn’t work. As the great libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises showed nearly 100 years ago, there can be no rational pricing under a socialist regime, and therefore rational economic planning – the core of the socialist concept – cannot occur. Aside from that, the peculiar characteristic of North Korean socialism – the “juche” idea, which is basically economic autarky – make the success of even a modified communist system utterly impossible, no matter how many concessions to the internal market economy the regime makes.
Kim Jong-un and the ruling elite of North Korea looked at the South and decided they wanted some of that good stuff too: they want to live in a modern state, with all the amenities (like functioning electricity!). Furthermore, they looked at the geopolitical corner they’ve backed themselves into and saw that their enemies have the advantage: the North Koreans are literally surrounded, with no way out except to align with one of their adversaries.
And who are their enemies? Up until recently, the South was a declared enemy. And surely the Japanese, who are hated by the South as well as the North, also qualify: the legacy of World War II is still fresh in that part of the world. And despite popular misconceptions, and the history of the Korean war, the Chinese are also considered adversaries: there’s a long history of embittered polemics between the two ostensibly communist countries, involving both ideology and border disputes. Now that China has moved toward rapprochement and economic partnership with the West, the North Koreans have decided to take the same route – only more so.
My view is that the North Koreans have decided on an alliance – I repeat, an alliance, not just a rapprochement – with the United States on the grounds that the far enemy is less dangerous than their Chinese frenemies next door. The last thing Kim wants is to be absorbed by his erstwhile allies in Beijing, who, after all, have joined with the West in imposing punishing economic sanctions. Another indication of the anti-Chinese orientation of the regime is the execution of Kim’s uncle – who had been in charge of negotiating with the Chinese over economic “free trade zones” – and the subsequent purge of “anti-party elements” who supposedly were giving away economic concessions to the Chinese for practically nothing.
A new generation of leadership has taken the reins in Pyongyang, exemplified by Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, with her Western-style clothing and casual poise. It’s no surprise that the North Korean elite doesn’t want to exist within the constraints imposed by an outlived conflict. That our President sees this and is acting to meet them on their own terms is to his credit – not that Trump’s enemies in this country and abroad are willing to give him the least amount of credit.
But no matter: like the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the European wing of the Bolshevik movement, this historic development is occurring over and above the whiny protests of the usual suspects. Remember how the neocons denounced Ronald Reagan for taking Gorbachev seriously? The same thing is happening today, with the “liberals” joining the war-loving neocons in their skeptical chorus.
Meanwhile, Donald J. Trump is making history – and I’m loving it.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.