Why Negotiations With North Korea Are (Currently) Impossible
Absent significant changes, expecting normal diplomatic relationships with the DPRK is a pipe dream.
With military action seemingly off the table for obvious reasons, many people have been talking about the idea of some form of negotiation that might lead to the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Un abandoning its current course of conduct. Leonid Bershidsky writes at Bloomberg View that this is largely based on a fantasy. In the column, Bershidsky relates the experiences of Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky, who in 2013 was seeking to make a documentary in the reclusive country and found himself negotiating with senior government officials:
Mansky’s negotiations were with rather senior officials in the North Korean propaganda machine but perhaps things can go better if the supreme leader himself is involved in talks? Mansky doesn’t think so. “Paradoxically,” he says, “the man at the top doesn’t make decisions, either, because he’s dependent on the dictatorship he has created.” As Mansky tells it, the Kim dictatorship must maintain the cult that was created to sustain it, absurd rules and all; it’s a two-way street of mutual reinforcement. The Communist regime under which Mansky and I both grew up sort of worked like that, too — but North Korea has created a “perfect, flawless” version of the game.
The North Koreans wrote the script for the movie, about a young girl who prepares to join the Korean Children’s Union, part of the ruling Workers’ Party. Mansky’s job was to film a carefully stage-managed version of the girl’s life with her family. True to Vertov’s methods, Mansky filmed the handlers’ instructions, kept the takes they discarded because the characters weren’t sufficiently enthusiastic and captured on camera what he could see of actual North Korean life. The official censors got a memory card with the approved footage. Mansky kept the rest of the material hidden. It is now part of the film, which has garnered attention worldwide. It’s worth watching; the film provides more insight into North Korean life than thousands of pages of news reports, memoirs and academic literature.
Sanctions against North Korea — the easy response — are ineffective for the same reasons. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently said North Koreans would “eat grass” rather than give up their nuclear program, has been listening to the right people. Putin, however, calls for negotiating with North Korea to guarantee its security.
Mansky’s proposal is to leave North Korea alone in its self-imposed isolation — that is, if the civilized world can stand the thought of Kim’s regime committing its endless crime against the North Korean people and bear with the constant taunting of missile launches and threats. He doesn’t believe the regime is inherently aggressive. He describes a propaganda video he saw in North Korea, portraying South Korea as a prodigal son throwing himself on the barbed wire that separates him from his mother, the embodiment of North Korea. “They could easily change that image to a father with wire cutters slashing through that fence,” Mansky says. Kim, Mansky believes, is doing his best to drill hatred of the U.S. into North Koreans’ heads — but also to hold back from any escalation, because it would present an existential threat to the regime.
Mansky doesn’t believe trying to somehow educate North Koreans is possible with the Kim regime in place. He brings up a Russian folk tale of an evil king who achieved immortality by putting his death on the point of a needle which he hid in an egg locked inside a chest. “Intelligence services must get to that needle,” Mansky says. I ask him if he means the dictator’s physical elimination; he demurs — suggesting that, he says, would be going too far. And in any case, even with the regime gone, it will probably take more than a generation for North Koreans to become more like the rest of us: Mansky points out the high suicide rate among North Korean defectors to the south.
Largely in agreement with Bershidsky at his own site, Dave Schuler agrees:
The only real prospect for dealing with North Korea short of risking a nuclear World War III resides in changing China’s incentives to the degree that they’re willing to shut North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program down. That will take determination of a sort that we haven’t shown in decades.
While there’s obviously a massive difference between negotiations over how a documentary is being shot and negotiations regarding North Korea’s nuclear program, or about entering into the formal peace treaty that was never obtained at the end of the Korean War sixty-four years ago, the story that Bershidsky tells about Mansky’s experiences goes a long way toward explaining the reality that any negotiations with Pyongyang would likely face the moment that they started. Simply put, North Korea and the Kim regime exist within a belief system that has two ideas at its core. The first, of course, involves maintaining the myth that the Kim family, extending from Kim Il Sung to his son Kim Jong Il and his grandson Kim Jong Un, are about as close to being a Royal Family as you can get without all the pageantry we see associated with royalty in the United Kingdom, other parts of Europe, and Japan. Indeed, one could argue that the system that exists in North Korea today resembles a medieval absolute monarchy in all but name. The other is the idea that North Korea has been under siege, from its neighbors and most especially from the United States, and that there is a constant threat that troops will pour over the DMZ and seek to conquer the nation, much in the same way that the Korean Peninsula has been conquered in the past by the Chinese and, most recently, the Japanese during World War Two. These two ideas form the core of the myth that the regime uses to control the population. More importantly, as Minsky’s experience seems to reinforce, its something that the leaders and others in the government actually seem to believe, or at least they act as if they do. As a result, any negotiations with North Korea first have to deal with the fact that everything the Kim regime does relies on reinforcing these twin myths and avoiding anything that would bring them into doubt. This makes negotiation with the regime not only difficult but seemingly futile.
Because of this need to constantly reinforce the myths that sustain the regime, the idea that normal seems to be hopelessly naive. Instead, it seems clear that Dave is correct and that North Korea must somehow be persuaded to act within international norms but some method that falls short of war, but which doesn’t just open the door for negotiations that do nothing but help the Kim regime reinforce the lies that keep it in power. As always, China is the key to that strategy given its relationship with Pyongyang and the fact that it is China that plays the largest role in keeping the economy of the DPRK from collapsing totally. To some extent, it has appeared in recent years that Beijing has lost patience with the younger Kim and that has led to some actions on their part that have likely had an impact on the North Korean economy. So far, though, China has been reluctant to take the steps necessary to put real pressure on Pyongyang, and none of our recent President’s has shown the will to be tough enough with China to persuade them to act. Until that changes and the Chinese are able to persuade the Chinese to get the North Koreans to act within diplomatic norms, it’s unlikely anything is going to change, and the likelihood that a crisis on the peninsula could spiral out of control will increase.