If it wasn’t official before, North Korea is now the biggest foreign policy crisis the Trump administration is facing. “North Korea had best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” President Donald Trump said during a briefing on opioid addiction Tuesday at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey. The Pyongyang regime responded with another threat of its own, saying its military “is examining the operational plan” for a missile strike around the U.S. territory of Guam. As the Pyongyang regime continues to defy international sanctions and presses on with its missile testing, the problem of war and peace on the peninsula becomes increasingly urgent. Should the United States risk war with North Korea that may ultimately lead to a bigger war and chaos in the region? Should it pursue a peace that keeps a dictatorial regime intact to fight another day? Washington’s policy analysts, pundits and North Korea watchers have gone around this circle over the past 15 years. Yesterday’s escalation jolted us out of the sense that it might go on indefinitely, unresolved.
What does the North really want? And how can Trump face down such a seemingly irrational leader? Much of today’s commentariat on North Korea can be divided into three main camps: Regime Changers, who want to take out Kim; Grand Bargainers, who want a peace treaty in exchange for denuclearization; and China Pushers, who want China to take on the main role in pressuring North Korea toward a deal. But all three positions ignore something important: A long view of its history encompassing Koreans’ place in the world and how the regime in the North sees it. This past may provide a better window to understanding our current predicament with North Korea than the contemporary moment, and if Trump or his advisers aren’t considering Korea’s long view, he’s going to join the long list of leaders who have gotten the nation dangerously wrong.
The modern shorthand for North Korea is the "hermit kingdom," but that’s not a quirk of the Kim family: It was during the year 1637 when Korea cut itself off from the world and seclusion became the cardinal principle of its foreign policy. That date marks the end of the Manchu invasions from China, the last of a series of calamitous foreign wars on the peninsula. In 1254, for example, the Mongols slaughtered 200,000 Korean men, women and children as they embarked upon their scorched-earth policy to make Korea their tributary state. An even worse catastrophe arrived from Japan in the late 16th century, when nearly 2 million Koreans, a staggering 20 percent of the population, perished in the effort to stop Japan from subjugating the Korean peninsula. The Koreans were able to beat back the Japanese, but just a few decades later, they were forced to submit to China’s Qing Dynasty, which imposed its own diplomatic system on the Korean nation. In exchange for Qing’s military protection, the Korean king submitted to the governing principle of “Serving the Great,” whereby, as a tributary state, he relinquished control over his country’s foreign policy. The system proved to be remarkably stable: Peace reigned on the Korean peninsula for the next two and a half centuries.
But the old Confucian world order began to crumble at the end of 19th century under the pressure of Japanese gunboats and Russian expansion. Korea’s big neighbors sought to neutralize the threat posed by other great powers by securing for themselves predominance on the peninsula. Korea’s response was to begin the dangerous game of playing the great powers off against one another. The game only intensified the mutual distrust and belligerence among the three powers surrounding Korea: China, Japan and Russia. The fear was that Korea might, at any moment, undermine the position of one power by aligning itself with another. Two major wars ensued, the First Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War. Japan’s “final solution” of the Korean problem—the elimination of the country’s independence by placing the peninsula firmly under Japanese rule—was sanctioned with the approval of a new rising power: President Theodore Roosevelt, of the United States of America.
Modern Korea is the product of the last great power clash on the peninsula: the Korean War. After World War II, Soviet and American leaders agreed to divide the peninsula at the 38th parallel in the hope that the two great powers could come to some agreement on the peninsula and so ensure a workable peace. This did not happen, and another war ensued. But after 1953, the uneasy truce held. So Korea has endured three main “governing principles” imposed by outside powers to ensure the stability of the peninsula: the “Serving the Great” principle under the Qing, the outright annexation of Korea by Japan, and the division of the peninsula by the Americans and the Soviets. Although none of these governing principles was deemed satisfactory from the Korean point of view, in each case, they had no choice but to accept them.
The division system, linked to the Cold War, turned out to be remarkably stable, with one key problem: It worked out far better for the South than for the North. South Koreans prospered under a system that guaranteed their nation’s security and U.S. military presence as a protective shield against the three great Asian powers and against the aggressive intentions of North Korea. This is one reason why President Jimmy Carter’s plan to withdrawal US troops from the peninsula in 1976 was staunchly opposed by everyone, including the Soviet Union and China. Beijing, paranoid about the Soviet threat, saw the removal of American forces as tempting the Soviets to reassert their long-standing interests on the peninsula. The Soviets wanted continued American presence in South Korea to restrain Kim Il Sung from starting another war.
North Korea, however, did not fare well under the division system, for a variety of political and economic reasons. The system that has ensured a workable peace for the rest of Asia and brought prosperity for South Korea has long been viewed by the North Koreans as the main impediment to realizing their nation’s destiny: the unification of the peninsula. Hence, North Korea’s never-ending revolutionary commitment to achieving the nation’s “final victory”: a war for fatherland unification and and the end of the “peace terms” imposed by the division.
It sounds strange, but to see it this way is to realize that the disruption of peace has been North Korea’s main strategic goal since 1950, when it invaded South Korea. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Kim Il Sung initiated a series of provocative actions against South Korea and the United States in a last-ditch effort to foment a South Korean revolution, force a withdrawal of American troops and achieve reunification under his control. Kim Jong Un’s recent test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles are therefore merely a dramatic extension of an ongoing strategy to wreak havoc on a system that North Korea has railed against for decades.
Not all experts on North Korea see unification as the Kim regime’s primary goal, but it is one that the North Koreans themselves have consistently given as their principal objective. What the regime wants, and has always wanted, is a peace treaty with the United States—a grand bargain that would lead to the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula, and that could be seen as a real step toward that objective. “If the United States troops pull out of South Korea and a democratic figure with national conscience comes into power,” Kim Il Sung declared during a speech in 1970, “we will firmly guarantee a durable peace in Korea and successfully solve the question of Korea’s reunification among us Koreans.” The rhetoric of Kim Jong Un regime has been no different, announcing the missile test on July 28 with a pledge to “achieve the final victory.” The "final victory" in North Korean propaganda means the same thing today that it meant when Kim Il Sung used it in the late 1940s: unification into a single Korea.
And so the standoff will continue. The North Korean regime will never be induced into trading its nuclear weapons, its only bargaining chip. Nor will it be inhibited by threats of a military attack or economic pressures from Beijing. The idea has always been to throw off the yoke of the great powers’ “governing principals”—all of them—to achieve Korea’s reunification and independence on its own terms.
The problem is that it’s in the rest of the world’s interest to keep the status quo: The division has a 70-year record of stability, and pulling out risks destabilizing the peninsula in the same way that critics of President Carter’s withdrawal plan articulated 40 years ago. Even South Korea has no real interest in reuniting. And denuclearizing North Korea by force—through bombing, or regime change—would trigger a war on a densely populated peninsula whose consequences would be unknowable, and horrifying.
Despite North Korea’s ideological stance, its contemporary problem isn’t really great power influence—the nation even prospered for a time as a client state of the Soviet Union. The problem is how badly it has fared in the division system, an embarrassment that forces the regime to cast the blame everywhere else, and direct its energy toward unachievable goals and wild rhetoric about defeating the United States. Preserving the division system should be our clearly stated goal, and the clearest route is to work with the Chinese in encouraging the North Koreans to accept the division system and to help them succeed within it. This isn’t unthinkable: North Korea’s economy, with China’s tacit encouragement, is actually growing.
For the United States, this means continuing to demonstrate our stalwart commitment to South Korea’s defense by building up U.S. and South Korean defense systems, including deploying the four remaining THAAD elements in South Korea. Unfortunately, North Korea already is a nuclear state, and the most reasonable prospect isn’t a violent disarmament, or a chimerical bargain, but an easing of sanctions—yes, even for an odious regime—and supporting China’s lead in bringing North Korea back into the family of nations as part of a divided country.