Some things never change. North Korean dictators’ determination to stay in power by keeping the rest of the world off balance is one of them.
For a time, it seemed as if North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un might be altering course from that pursued by his father and grandfather. Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump held what appeared on the surface to be respectful, if not cordial talks.
But discussion of Pyongyang’s one-nation arms race came to nothing after U.S. officials refused to grant concessions without productive movement on Kim’s part. Now the dictator has reverted to form, regularly escalating tension.
His most recent step has been to step up abrasiveness along the demilitarized zone between his country and South Korea. He took that action because officials in Seoul refused to do anything about activists in their country who are seeking to awaken North Koreans to the possibilities of reform. One technique has been sending helium-filled balloons with messages attached across the DMZ.
What is different this time is the message Kim is sending to the rest of the world. It is that there will never, ever been any voluntary reform by North Korean leaders.
Kim chose to make that clear by having his sister, Kim Yo Jong, take the lead in some aggressive leadership and public comments. In the past, North Korean leaders have shown little trust in others, even family members. The change is the Kim family’s statement of both solidarity and a dynastic long-term strategy.
So successful has bullying the rest of the world been in the past that North Korean leaders believe it will succeed again.
Rewarding them, possibly by easing economic sanctions, would be a terrible mistake. It would encourage them to persist in a strategy which at some point may lead to conflict.
Trump’s strategy of refusing to give in to the bully may mean continuing provocations by Pyongyang, but it is better than giving in to the Kims.