How to avert the North Korea crisis in just one step

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un

When it comes to what the United States should do about North Korea and its nuclear weapons, it can feel like no option is a good option.

But there is one tried and true method that has worked for American presidents for two decades. It’s not perfect. It may not even be preferred. But it’s proven effective.

Just pay them.


The main goal of the North Korean regime is to stay in power. But in order to stay in charge, they need money.

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In hindsight, perhaps it should have been clear that a main driver for North Korea developing a nuclear program in the first place was simply to use it as a bargaining chip to get international money. It’s been a failed state since the collapse of the cold war, and with it, the end of support from the Soviet Union. (By the way, it wasn’t always like this. During the 1960s and 1970s North Korea had a bigger economy than South Korea.)

Today, North Korea has virtually no industry and no resources. Money is what it needs, and its leaders are savvy enough to know the best way to get other countries to open up their wallets.

As much as world leaders want to label the Kim family as a group of madmen, they are actually rational actors, says Andrei Lankov, a North Korea scholar.

“They are neither madmen nor ideological zealots, but rather remarkably efficient and cold-minded calculators, perhaps the best practitioners of Machiavellian politics that can be found in the modern world,” Lankov wrote in his book, “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia.”


That’s not lost on President Trump. He campaigned on the notion that the North Koreans have skillfully outmaneuvered American presidents. That’s partially true. Beginning in the Clinton administration there has been a pattern: The North Koreans create a fake crisis, they escalate the situation into an actual crisis and then they eventually negotiate a deal to scrap their nuclear program in exchange for a big check. When that money runs out, they hit the repeat button. Some have grumbled that those payoffs amount to a reward for bad behavior.

The Obama administration tried to end this pattern by largely ignoring North Korea and refusing to get worked up, an approach dubbed “strategic patience.” Trump agreed that it was time to end the cycle, even as he demanded that the Kim regime return to the negotiating table. And unlike Obama, Trump has demanded that China play a bigger role in those talks. So what else is on the table? Sanctions don’t work, for reasons we’ll get into a minute. And that leaves military action.

But if the North Koreans are actually motivated by logic, they can’t possibly want a war with the United States. They would lose badly. And if they lose, the current leadership would undoubtedly be forced out, one way or the other.

Winning a war may not be good for the United States, either. First, if we go to war, we are putting our close ally, South Korea, in imminent danger, as their northern neighbors are sure to fire towards Seoul as a means of retaliating against the United States. Millions could die, even in a war we’d likely win.

And if we were victorious, it’s still hard to know who would emerge in power in North Korea, and whether they’d be worse than the Kim family. It might be possible to unite the peninsula under the South Korean government, but this move is increasingly unpopular in the south. Why? Economics. When East and West Germany unified, the GDP gap between them was 3 to 1. The gap today between North and South Korea is 15 to 1. The US would almost certainly be called in to provide economic assistance, and that could be costly.


Beyond economics, some want to explore military options. Again, the United States — either with an international coalition or alone — would easily win a bigger war. But consider what would happen the moment war broke out. Unless the United States knew in advance where every single military installation was and destroyed it immediately, North Korea could easily kill millions in South Korea. And, like fighting terrorism, it would only take missing one installation, and it could do serious damage to the point it may not be a morally defensible action.

Of course, there’s probably no scenario where these countries would unify anyway because China would likely veto any plan that flips a communist country on its border to a democracy it has little leverage over.

Put simply, a hypothetical postwar aftermath is so complicated it might not be in the best interest of the United States.’`

Which brings us back to why we’d ever pay the North Koreans in exchange for short-term peace. The reality is, there just aren’t better options.

That brings us back to the issue of ramping up sanctions, a strategy that’s been discussed for several weeks, including late Wednesday at a meeting of the UN Security Council. It can feel like sanctions are an easy, quick fix when dealing with rogue states. But when it comes to North Korea, they just aren’t as effective.

In theory, sanctions create domestic turmoil for the country’s current leaders as citizens blame them for a diminished quality of life. But in North Korea, we’ve already imposed sanctions to little success.

Without access to other media, citizens are told the story that the government wants them to hear, so the political backlash that often goes hand in hand with sanctions just isn’t a factor. Besides, the entire economy is essentially a black market, meaning that sanctions don’t have the same impact as they do in other countries.

More sanctions won’t work, and war is messy. That leaves us with few realistic options.

In the end, it might just make sense (as unpopular as that will be) to cut a deal and give them money in exchange for dismantling their nuclear program, thus removing a threat to the United States. Will the North Koreans eventually restart that program? No doubt. But it’s a short-term move that lowers the temperature and averts the problem, at least temporarily. It’s worked until now.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp