North Koreans would have far more confidence that a guarantee of sovereignty by the U.S. and South Korea would hold if China’s leaders backed it publicly, as well as privately. And if the Chinese would promise to provide the level of economic support that North Korea needs to keep it at least stable, and perhaps more prosperous than it is now, that would help encourage the generals to act. Let’s hope that President Trump at least talked about all this when he met at Mar-a-Lago last month with his new best-buddy, Chinese president Xi.
The looming crisis with North Korea provides a perfect illustration of what’s gone wrong with the way Washington works. Everyone is so eager to propose a policy, no one can be bothered to articulate an objective. So policymakers start arguing about what to do, before deciding what they want to accomplish. That’s like arguing over what route to take, before deciding where you want to go. (Which, to point out the obvious, is why we keep ending up in the middle of nowhere, or upside down in a ditch.)
Here’s one possible objective that would defuse this crisis and perhaps even bring a few decades of stability: to turn North Korea into a modern version of East Germany.
For those of you too young to remember the Cold War, during those decades after World War II Germany was divided. West Germany was free, prosperous, and an American ally. East Germany was a miserable dictatorship, not very prosperous, and a Soviet satellite. (To get a feel for what life was like in East Germany, watch the great movie The Lives of Others, and the German television seriesWeissensee.) But during all these decades, East Germany was never a threat to West Germany, or to the U.S. Its communist regime wanted only to be left alone. And in return, the West Germans and the Americans made it absolutely clear they had no intention of unifying Germany by attacking or otherwise bringing down the East.
When the Korean war ended with an armistice in 1953, that country was divided. South Korea became free, prosperous, and an American ally. North Korea became a miserable dictatorship, not very prosperous, and a sort-of satellite of China. The difference between Germany and Korea is that while East Germany wanted only to be left alone, North Korea keeps threatening to conquer South Korea and reunify the country under its control, and to fire nuclear-armed missiles at the U.S. itself.
President Trump’s Got Their Attention
Simply put, it may be possible to defuse the current crisis without a war by cutting a deal along these lines: If North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons and cease threatening South Korea and the U.S., the U.S. and South Korea will guarantee North Korea’s sovereignty.
Once again, there’s an historic parallel between Korea and Germany: Adolf Hitler was crazy; a foaming-at-the-mouth, chewing-the-carpet raving lunatic. He was also a brilliant, cunning politician who not only held onto power, but who kept within his grip the total loyalty of Germany’s military leaders. These generals weren’t crazy; they were hard, practical, highly intelligent men who had fought and lost World War I and then rebuilt Germany’s war machine. They knew in their bones that another world war would devastate their country. They understood that invading Russia would end in catastrophe.
Yet the generals didn’t get rid of Hitler. While a small number were prepared to overthrow Hitler, most were caught up in appalling, fawning loyalty to him that had more to do with twisted psychology than with military strategy. The minority willing to act received no encouragement from the Western Allies. The others plunged ahead, caught in Hitler’s hypnotic spell. There’s no way to know this for sure, but it’s widely accepted among historians that if the generals had gotten rid of Hitler in 1937 or 1938, there would not have been a Second World War. (Plots to overthrow Hitler by some brave German continued after the war started, but by that time it was too late; all their efforts failed.)
We can argue all day whether Kim Jong-un is crazy, but it’s obvious he isn’t, um, normal. He’s held onto power, and he’s kept within his grip the loyalty of North Korea’s generals. These generals aren’t crazy. Crazy people cannot build weapons, organize complex programs to develop nuclear bombs — or build roads, operate electric power systems, keep the trains and buses running, assure that at least some food gets produced and distributed, operate schools and hospitals. They must be hard, practical, and highly intelligent. And while they may not be charming and fun to hang out with, they aren’t suicidal.
How to Organize a Coup d’Etat
Today, just like the German generals in the Spring of 1939, North Korea’s generals are careening toward war. But the point of studying history is to learn from it. Back in 1939 there was no serious effort in London, Paris, and Washington to try and break Hitler’s grip on his generals and to help them organize a coup d’etat. So the world plunged into war. Might it be possible to do this now? Is there some way to break Kim Jong-un’s grip on his generals — to snap them out of their hypnotic spell and help them to organize a coup before it’s too late?
For an effort like this to have even a chance of success, we’ll need answers to these questions:
Who are these guys? Presumably our intelligence service knows at least something about the two or three dozen officials who actually run North Korea. Well, which ones are most likely to abandon Kim and work with us? Who are the ones we would like to see take power?
How do we reach them? Of course, we can communicate with these generals over the airwaves, so to speak. That would involve official statements by President Trump and his national security team threatening war, and clearly offering a guarantee of regime survival in exchange for disarmament. But there must also be ways of reaching these officials individually — and very privately.
What precisely do we want them to do? We want the generals to replace Kim and his closest advisors with officials who will work with the U.S. to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, then work with South Korea to establish the kind of sullen but stable peace that existed for decades between West and East Germany.
What help do they need? It’s possible that a serious threat to attack by President Trump, combined with the offer of regime survival in return for disarmament, will be sufficient to push at least some of the generals into taking action. But they may need more help, for instance a massive propaganda campaign to generate support for them before they act by telling the North Korean population how their lives will become immeasurably better once Kim is replaced. The generals also may need the kind of help that only a powerful intelligence service like ours can provide, for instance a covert communications system so they can be in touch with us, and with one another, without being overheard by Pyongyang’s security officials. They may even need the kind of help only the Pentagon can provide, for instance SEAL Team Six.
China’s help would vastly increase the chances of success. Beijing’s diplomatic and intelligence services probably have a better grasp of what’s actually going on in Pyongyang than ours. And they can probably provide detailed information about which generals to work with, and which to avoid — or remove. Most of all, the North Koreans would have far more confidence that a guarantee of sovereignty by the U.S. and South Korea would hold if China’s leaders backed it publicly, as well as privately. And if the Chinese would promise to provide the level of economic support that North Korea needs to keep it at least stable, and perhaps more prosperous than it is now, that would help encourage the generals to act. Let’s hope that President Trump at least talked about all this when he met at Mar-a-Lago last month with his new best-buddy, Chinese president Xi.
Don’t bother asking the usual Washington policymakers whether turning North Korea into a modern version of East Germany might actually be possible. They will reply — in unison, within two-billionths of a second — No, this is impossible! Kim Jong-un is crazy, and the North Koreans will never give up their nukes or agree to stop threatening South Korea and the U.S. Well, they may be right. On the other hand, these are mostly the same geniuses who told us, also with 100 percent confidence, that it was impossible to win the Cold War, and impossible for Donald Trump to get elected president. Impossible things sometimes do happen, even in politics — especially in politics. Given the risk we face of nuclear war, this is worth a shot.