On Aug. 24, President Donald Trump announced that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would not be going to North Korea as planned. The reason given is that the government in Pyongyang has not followed through on promises to dismantle nuclear weapons facilities or curtail development.
This is the right move by the White House. The long history of the surviving communist government in North Korea has combined rigid, ruthless totalitarianism at home with erratic inconsistency and unpredictability. Pyongyang occasionally punctuates the status quo with violence directed at individuals, South Korea and the international community.
In February 2017, Kim Jong Nam, estranged half-brother of North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un, was murdered at Kuala Lumpur Airport in Malaysia. Two young women from Indonesia and Vietnam, who put a lethal nerve agent on his face, contend North Korea agents duped them. Their lawyers argue the women thought they were participating in a prank for a reality television program.
Kim Jong Un is the son of Kim Jong Il, and assumed power following his father’s death in 2011. In May 2016, he wore a business suit rather than uniform for a Communist Party Congress. Kim publicly acknowledged economic challenges, no longer avoidable.
That reality provides crucial advantages for U.S. policy and UN pressures.
The Communist Party Congress took place in a context of continuing tensions with South Korea. In 2013, North Korea announced a “state of war” with South Korea and threatened nuclear attack. Pyongyang abruptly abrogated the 1953 armistice agreement ending the Korean War, and cut the military “hotline” communications link with the south.
During this same period, Pyongyang temporarily prevented South Korean workers from entering the Kaesong industrial center, located six miles north of the DMZ separating the two nations. In February, South Korea shut down the center to protest Pyongyang provocations. The center has been an important source of hard currency.
Developments in recent years could be a prelude to war, yet there is no concrete evidence that North Korea is mobilizing to invade South Korea. Moreover, Pyongyang’s nuclear program remains rudimentary. Missile tests include some successes, but also dramatic failure.
Kim has publicly criticized those in the military “developing a taste for money” amid reports of corruption. As part of a major military shakeup, Kim assumed the rank of Marshal of the People’s Army, adding to a series of celebratory titles. He has been ruthless in executing those suspected of disloyalty, including close family members.
North Korea in sum has acted bizarrely for years. In March 2010, a North Korea torpedo sank the South Korean ship Cheonan. In the same vicinity in November of that year, North Korean artillery bombarded South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island.
In late February 2012, North Korea agreed once more to cease their on-again, off-again nuclear program. In joint announcements coordinated with the U.S. Department of State, the regime agreed to halt enrichment of uranium and construction of weapons, and permit international inspection of nuclear facilities.
Yet two months later, Pyongyang tested a missile. The launch was an embarrassing flop. This unpredictable shifting course implies infighting among factions in the regime rather than total control by Kim and his immediate coterie.
Regarding Korea, President Dwight Eisenhower understood brutal realities of war. Stalled Korean War armistice talks quickly concluded successfully in 1953 following extraordinary bombing of North Korea. Ike focused on getting the job done.
That provides a firm long-term foundation. Our government can avoid war, and should avoid reality TV.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.