What Have We Learned from Kim Jong Nam’s Death? Nothing We Didn’t Already Know

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This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote this week for the Lowy Institute. I wrote this, because I was getting tired of reading or hearing on TV about how this poor man’s excruciatingly painful death changed things. It did not. Quite the contrary. The assassination, along with the February rocket test, just reconfirmed, for the zillionith time, what we all already know – that North Korea is a lying, brutal, norm-less regime that has no compunction about violating international law (the missile test is prohibited by UN Security Council resolution) or releasing a hugely dangerous toxin (VX) in an open, heavily travelled public place.

So one again, because the US has a new president and South Korea will likely have one soon too, we hear that we must engage North Korea and all that. Honestly, I keep wondering how this is supposed to work after 25 years of failure. What about North Korea has changed that suddenly makes it more likely to take negotiations more seriously? Who cares if the leadership in other countries changes. What matters is NK, and in February, it violated two major international norms – a missile test and an assassination. Yet at the very same time (!), we hear that talks should resume. Really? Isn’t that a glaringly obvious contradiction? The murder some poor guy and shoot a missile toward Japan, and we…reward them with talks? .

But honestly, talks in themselves are a concession to NK given its appalling behavior. So tell me why this time is different? I am not completely hostile to negotiating with NK; I could be talked into it. But there needs to be a compelling, this-time-is-different element.

The full essay follows the jump:


Last month, Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jon Un, was murdered in the Kuala Lumpur airport. The James Bond-style assassination, complete with an elaborate conspiracy and poison swabs, has received tremendous media coverage. In South Korea, cable news has covered it breathlessly for weeks. There has been much debate over what we have learned from this event. But it strikes me that we actually have not learned that much, that assassinations, terrorism, criminality, lying, and so on are part-and-parcel of this regime. February alone saw two such acts – a missile test (such tests are prohibited by United Nations resolutions), and this killing. The correlate policy insight then is why we should expect North Korea to behave any differently when it negotiates? This issue has arisen yet again, as we go through the regular, new US president ritual of whether we should talk to North Korea or not.

Talk is Cheap

The most obvious case for engaging North Korea is that it is effectively costless. Diplomats meeting in a conference room somewhere – Beijing or at the UN usually – is hardly expensive. Indeed, states maintain diplomatic corps precisely for such reasons. So why not? What is the harm of chatting them up and seeing what comes it? We can go into such talks with the necessary high skepticism, be on our guard to not get suckered, and otherwise double-check or double-verify any concessions they agree to make.

Unfortunately, even talking with North Korea is not so simple, for talking to Pyongyang is a kind of concession in itself. By agreeing to talks, we: 1) recognize, however implicitly, that North Korea is genuine sovereign actor, not an errant part of a unified Korean republic; 2) let North Korea off the hook, however implicitly, for actions, such as this assassination or its constant violations of UN sanctions, which really should isolate it; 3) impart North Korea international prestige simply by allowing it to interact with weighty states like the US or China; and 4) give it a potential smokescreen to buy time to continue its nuclear and missile programs. All of these are important regime goals, and critically none of them require the talks to lead to any concrete outcome.

The US and China likely enter talks instrumentally; that is, they see talks as a means to an end. But for North Korea, the talks themselves are a pretty good end, even if they go nowhere. Dragging them out serves the goals listed above. Perhaps negotiation’s ends goals – denuclearization for a peace treaty, e.g. – are attractive to the North as well, perhaps not. It is hard to know. But it is obvious that international negotiation in itself is valuable for the North. This is something I do not believe engagement advocates recognize enough: just sitting in a room with North Korean diplomats is in fact a concession to them and serves their interests. This is why the North Koreans are constantly calling for talks. Even if they do not intend to take them very seriously (maybe they do; it is hard to know), the North Koreans always want to meet.

So Talk is Not So Cheap Actually

It is worth unpacking the four gains I suggest above: First, talking to North Korea implicitly recognizes it. The two Koreas are in a long-term battle of attrition and legitimacy. South Korea is clearly winning that contest. Just as West Germany during the Cold War increasingly came to be just ‘Germany,’ so South Korea is becoming the Korea one is referencing when one says ‘Korea.’ East Germany and North Korea require the directional adjectives, because it became increasingly accepted that they were illegitimate, aberrant parts of a larger whole lying elsewhere. This legitimacy crisis ultimately undid East Germany. When East Germans were finally given the free vote in 1990, they overwhelmingly voted for unity, and therefore the destruction of their own state. North Korea faces the same dilemma, and every time we engage it, we reinforce its existence as a real state rather than the orwellian, mafiosi fiefdom it actually is.

Second, North Korea should be isolated and forgotten for all its awful behavior, like Zimbabwe or cold war Albania. Yet we talk to it despite its terrorism, crime, UN violations, and so on. This sends the obvious signal that it can act with impunity. Why not kill Kim Jong Nam in broad daylight if there are no consequences?

Third, just as North Korea desperately seeks recognition that it is a real country, so it seeks international status. Its news agency, the Korean Central News Agency, constantly speaks of other countries respecting its heroic accomplishments, sending congratulations to it on its national holidays, or organizing committees to study its juche philosophy. KCNA regularly takes umbrage at ‘insults’ to the ‘dignity’ its leader or state. Pyongyang routinely insists on high-level foreign dignitary visits to fish out western prisoners, because it wants the photo-ops. The North Koreans even hacked Sony Pictures over a forgettable, mediocre movie that showed Kim Jong Un in a unflattering light. For a state as small, backward, and otherwise irrelevant as North Korea, it captures a huge amount of global attention, which talks with powerful states like the US or Japan only reinforce. All this can be marketed domestically to legitimize the state and the glorious Kim family to its people.

Four, talks allow North Korea to continue with its illicit programs without fear of disruption, because kinetic action against it is presumably off the table during periods of negotiation. Dragging out discussions is thus an excellent way to buy time to finish a missile or reactor, while simultaneously claiming – truthfully or not – that all issues up for debate. Pyongyang has done this before. During the Sunshine Policy and the Six-Party Talks periods, North Korea did not stop its nuclear or missile programs, and when those efforts collapsed, Pyongyang was that much closer to a nuclear missile.

Strategic Patience is Not so Bad After All

For these reasons I have repeatedly defended the Obama administration’s ‘strategic patience’ approach, while arguing that South Korea should harden itself to win a long-term, grinding conflict of attrition. Little in North Korean behavior suggests that it takes talks, commitment, or international norms seriously. February suggests that once again. And talks with North Korea come with the implicit costs to the democracies sketched above. On the other hand, kinetic action against North Korea is terribly risky. The result is that, however fashionable it is to deprecate ‘strategic patience,’ it has been South Korean and US policy for decades.

2 thoughts on “What Have We Learned from Kim Jong Nam’s Death? Nothing We Didn’t Already Know

  1. what are your thoughts on the recent high profile North Korean diplomat to defect’s comments, that there is more and more dissatisfaction with Kim Jong Un, and that implosion is coming?


  2. I once attended a Royal Asiatic Society lecture where a woman firmly advocated the idea that North Korea was slowly but surely crawling out from under their rock and ‘modernizing’ in their own way, ie: (her examples) building ski resorts and engaging in subtle forms of capitalism-ish behavior (I think she used black markets as an example). The crowd was humane enough not to laugh her off of the podium, despite the fact that she had obviously been affected in the intended way by some of North Korea’s propaganda and possibly a flitting dream of inter-Korean hand-holding somehow prompted by a more ‘modern’ and ‘open minded’ North Korea.

    I agree with you on several points, and question why North Korea is even recognized as anything other than a failed state waiting to happen, and a terrorist group illegally occupying part of the Korean peninsula. I believe that with a bit of external pressure, many (but not all) of the countries that have official ties with NK could be persuaded to close embassies and sever those ties. Even disgraced former SK president PGH got Uganda to sever ties with North Korea. Cut the strings one at a time, pinch the streams of (mostly illicit) capital inflow, move the South Korean capital, spend more on defense, and wait them out until they starve. It is for the most part, a passive war of attrition. Key players China and Japan will likely not be part of the picture. Korea will never work with Japan (the populace is too distracted with petty issues that somehow overshadow serious contemporary issues like national security), and China which views the US as an enemy, will never cooperate with allies of the USA.


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