Most foreign policy makers in Washington finally recognize that neither diplomacy nor pressure will get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and inter-continental ballistic missile programs. This is a major epiphany, a significant change in Foggy Bottom thinking, but it is only the first step in a long process toward understanding where Pyongyang is headed.
Because the North is thought to be quite “opaque,” many say that it is difficult – if not downright impossible – to discern what Pyongyang really wants. That is because such thinkers have given up; they have neither taken the time nor made the effort to understand North Korea. They were slow in realizing that North Korea’s weapons and delivery systems are here to stay. Now they do not comprehend that détente with its enemies is not the North’s end game. There is much more.
Paraphrasing what Winston Churchill once said, “I cannot forecast to you the action of North Korea. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is North Korean national interest.” Indeed, by knowing Pyongyang’s national interest, we can forecast its action.
Kim Jong-un is little different from his father or his grandfather. He may be more inclined to execute his political opponents, but his political objectives and his main goal are the same as they have been for all seventy years of the Kims’ rule: conquering the South. Unlike Americans, the Kim dynasty thinks in terms of decades, not fiscal quarters or quadrennial election cycles.
A game of thrones
Those who have read the history and have made the effort to study the country have a very good idea of what lies ahead. The ultimate goal is unification of the Korean Peninsula under the Kim dynasty. Control of the entire peninsula is the ultimate security guarantee. Those that scoff at this are looking at things from a Western perspective and do not see the world through Pyongyang’s eyes. The failures in all of the West’s dealings with North Korea can be traced back to not understanding what the North intends but trusting what the North promises.
Now that we at last admit that Pyongyang’s nukes and ICBMs are not going away, the question therefore becomes what is next? The answer is staring us in the face right now. We need to comprehend what Pyongyang aims to accomplish by sending athletes to the Winter Olympic Games being held in February 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Pyongyang is engaging in a charm offensive with Seoul for two reasons: (1) to entice the South into believing the North’s honeyed words, and (2) to drive a wedge between South Korea and the U.S. It is the just first of many steps required for North Korea to accomplish that. We can be confident that it is not the last.
One path to the crown
Once Pyongyang has convinced Seoul of its benign intentions, the subject of a peace treaty will resurface. Even though missile tests will likely continue – along with perhaps another nuclear detonation – the North will claim that they are for defensive purposes to keep the Imperialist Yankees at bay. If South Korea – and the West – truly mean North Korea no harm, then let there be a treaty putting all the lingering hostilities to rest.
Should a peace treaty be signed, Pyongyang will celebrate that mightily, claiming that at last all barriers to prosperous coexistence have been removed. It would be time for all foreign influences (read: American troops and war materiel) to leave the peninsula. After all, if Seoul and Pyongyang are at peace with one another, those Westerners are no long needed. Their presence keeps South Korea from being its own nation anyway – time for Seoul to exercise a bit of freedom and independence.
Greater economic engagement would surely follow and links between the two countries would quickly increase and intensify. As cross border trade and collaboration between the North and the South increased, sooner or later it would become apparent that greater political teamwork would be necessary to take progress to the next level. That political solidarity might be in the form of a confederation between Seoul and Pyongyang to cement the idea of One Country – Two Systems.
However, rather than a political union in which representation from each country is based upon population, Pyongyang would insist upon treating the North and the South equally. Otherwise the North would be outnumbered roughly 2:1. Any resulting system would be more like the American Senate (two senators from each state) rather than the U.S. House of Representatives (representation based upon the population of each state). Power wise, North Korea would be on a par with the South.
Manipulation of the joint governing body and other political activity would be a given. With all North Korean “senators” voting as Pyongyang ordered, merely one sympathetic South Korean “senator” would swing any political deliberation to the North’s favor.
The North would likely take very small steps at first to forestall alarm, but in time the political scales would tilt in Pyongyang’s favor. Domination of the joint Korean political process would have become inevitable, a case of surreptitiously “invading” the South politically to take control from within – without having to damage valuable infrastructure by resorting to war.
To many this sounds far-fetched, and admittedly, the outline of events described above is indeed a chain of conditionals – a series of “if this, then perhaps that” strung together. Even so, this hypothetical play of many contingent acts is only one of several paths that illustrates how Pyongyang’s actors could set the stage to conquer the South.
It would take years – perhaps even decades – and the people on both sides of the demilitarized zone currently advising and running the show would probably have long since departed this world. But the Kim dynastic goal will have been achieved – unless Seoul and its allies rewrite the play and reset the stage.