Let’s be honest about North Korea: We’re clueless

Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) celebrates with scientists and technicians at the General Satellite Control and Command Center after the launch of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket carrying the second version of Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite, in this picture released by the North's KCNA news agency in Pyongyang early December 14, 2012.

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  • Save yourself a few precious minutes and ignore everything the U.S. government says about North Korea.

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  • If we had even the slimmest idea how to denuclearize or de-missilize or de-Kimize North Korea, we would have done it long ago.

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  • [W]e may as well ignore every launch and explosion, because we’re sure as heck not willing to do anything about it.

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Save yourself a few precious minutes and ignore everything the U.S. government says about North Korea. In fact, at risk of losing my union card in the Asian-studies community, ignore everything Asian experts say about North Korea, too. The truth is, we don’t have a clue what to do. That’s not to say there aren’t lots of very smart people who know a lot about Korea. However, it’s time for the commonsense rule: If we had even the slimmest idea how to denuclearize or de-missilize or de-Kimize North Korea, we would have done it long ago.  

I was in Shanghai 48 hours ago when Pyongyang surprised the world with its successful ballistic-missile launch and satellite deployment. My Chinese hosts were as flummoxed as the rest of us, it seems. But it’s long been clear that Peking has no interest in any type of serious actions against the North. But neither does the Obama administration, it seems, as the White House has apparently given up the idea of any “red lines” in response to Kim Jong Un’s increasingly successful missile program. One assumes that a crazy North Korean decision to nuke Seoul or Tokyo (or maybe L.A.) would be a red line, but who knows?

The point is, life is too short to spend any time listening to more meaningless condemnations, soulless U.N. pronouncements, or expert spin (not that I won’t take my time on camera, if called upon, of course). They’ll undoubtedly happen, and they’ll be just as useless as everything that’s gone before. We’ve been playing this game for nearly 20 years now, when Bill Clinton first fell for Kim Il Sung’s bait-and-switch back in 1994, and called off the U.S. Air Force after future Nobel laureate Jimmy Carter rushed back home with a “peace in our time” agreement with the dictator.

There are a lot of accomplished and smart people spending decades of their lives on this issue, but as far as I can tell, the song remains the same. All we can be sure of is, the graybeards will hold more secret meetings with their North Korean opposites; a new round of really, super-duper serious sanctions will be announced (and then undercut by China and Russia); and we’ll all wait for the next nuclear test (my bet is sometime in the first quarter of next year), followed by yet another “satellite launch.”

The beginning of wisdom is accepting what you can’t control. In North Korea’s case, that can be extended to admitting that we don’t even understand what’s going on, except that it’s a regime obsessed solely with survival. They, on the other hand, understand us perfectly: No matter what they do, we’re confused and unwilling to risk a greater clash. So, until they wig out and incinerate an Asian ally or two (which seems unlikely), we may as well ignore every launch and explosion, because we’re sure as heck not willing to do anything about it. That may well be the right course, but then let’s man up and admit it.

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About the Author

 

Michael
Auslin
  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.


    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on wsj.com. His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.


    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.


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