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Washington’s Continuing Failure to Understand Our Adversaries

Steven Metz identifies the administration’s misunderstanding of Kim Jong-un’s goals and interests as the main cause for the failure of the Hanoi summit:

But Kim is not a normal political leader. Having learned from his father and grandfather, he knows that personalist dictators die when they weaken their grip, allow the dependence on them to erode, or fail to deter or distract an adversary like the United States. He does not want the kind of prosperity that would make North Korea “an economic powerhouse,” as Trump offered, and does not need a true partnership with the United States. All he needs is a modest easing of economic pressure, particularly by China and South Korea.

North Korea’s leadership is concerned above all with self-preservation, and that should be clear from their determined effort to acquire a nuclear deterrent at considerable cost. As Metz points out, North Korea under Kim is not 1990s Vietnam or Deng’s China. Geoffrey Cain elaborates on the important differences between Vietnam and North Korea:

First, the garrison kingdom is ruled by a ruthless, three-generation family dynasty—those at the top of the brutally repressive system almost definitionally having little to gain, and everything to lose, through change. The former dictator Kim Jong Il chose to keep pursuing a costly nuclear program even as Cold War-era Soviet subsidies collapsed, plunging his country into a famine that killed some one million people. While Vietnam was restoring ties with the U.S. in 1995, North Korea was isolating itself further, culminating in a currency “reform” in 2009 that made its citizens even poorer.

Another key difference between North Korea and these other communist states that have embraced some degree of economic liberalization is that Vietnam and China did not fear a possible U.S. attack aimed at overthrowing their regime. North Korea clings to its deterrent because its government thinks that it needs to keep it. They have seen what happened to states that didn’t have or gave up their nuclear weapons programs, and they don’t want to suffer the same fate. The unwillingness or inability to understand that North Korea’s government believes they need to defend themselves against U.S. attack may be our political leaders’ biggest blind spot.

Graham Allison labors under the same delusion as Trump in this piece that tries to spin the summit as something other than a failure:

Only fifty-five years ago, the United States was at war with Vietnam and Singapore was a notoriously corrupt, poor port that could have reminded one of North Korea today. Even with authoritarian leadership, they embraced the magic of market economics and integrated into the global economy, becoming economic powerhouses.

This message was surely not lost on Kim.

The message may not have been lost on Kim, but there is no compelling reason to think that Kim cares about this message. If North Korean leaders had been prepared to trade their nuclear weapons program for an end to sanctions and increased prosperity, one assumes that they would have done it decades ago. The U.S. keeps expecting North Korea to give up something that they have no reason to give up in exchange for something that isn’t as important to them as we think it is.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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