North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s recent announcement that he will no longer seek peaceful reunification with the South was a disconcerting development, but not a surprising one. Other than a brief interregnum during the Trump administration, the West’s relations with Pyongyang have been on a downward trajectory for some time.
America’s policy regarding North Korea’s nuclear program has been in place since before 2006, when the Hermit Kingdom detonated its first nuclear bomb. The policy, known as “maximum pressure”—a mix of diplomatic shut-out and crushing sanctions—has been conducted with one goal in mind: the regime’s complete denuclearization. By any measure, the policy has been an abject failure. It didn’t stop the North Koreans from developing nukes, and in the time since that first detonation, it has failed to stop them from expanding their program.
If the regime is isolated enough while enough North Koreans starve, proponents argue, Pyongyang can be cajoled or bribed into giving up its nuclear weapons. But this thinking, promoted by the liberal internationalists who have been in charge of American foreign policy for decades, fundamentally misunderstands how the North Korean leadership sees the world and Pyongyang’s position in it.
For starters, sanctions have no real deterrent effect on Kim. He has been able to bring his favorite luxuries—Swiss cheese high among them—into the country, regardless of sanctions. As for his people, he likely doesn’t care if they starve. He probably doesn’t prefer it, but their suffering won’t alter his calculus on strategic weapons. He also knows that the liberal internationalists’ human-rights ideals won’t allow them to literally starve a people into submission, and has time and time again been able to play the West against itself in this way. When starvation rises or poverty reaches a critical point, the West buckles and provides aid in exchange for promises—which have, of course, never been kept.