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North Korea and Libya: When Dictators Decompress


Charles Crawford

Sat, 12 May 2018 12:08 GMT

It wasn’t long ago that the world’s media headlines were shrieking about impending nuclear war in and around the Korean peninsula. Now the news is almost bizarrely positive.

North and South Korean leaders shaking hands and beaming. US citizens held in North Korea released. And a historic meeting now scheduled in Singapore between North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and the USA’s Supreme Leader Donald Trump: the first face-to-face meeting at the top level between countries whose angry exchanges and mutual suspicions have dragged on since the 1950s.

Plenty of sensible people can’t believe that all this is for real.

It’s obviously impossible to believe that Donald Trump is a weird diplomatic genius cruising towards a Nobel Peace Prize. This must be a ghastly miscalculation, or (worse) a cunning North Korean trick aimed at winning respectability but conceding nothing important on its nuclear weapons ambitions.

This last argument has its attractions for the armchair pundit.

North Korea has been nothing but duplicitous, brutish and belligerent for as far back as anyone can remember, a sui generis phenomenon in international relations revelling in its own isolation and backwardness.  

Nonetheless the latest rounds of international sanctions (supported by a China unimpressed with new tensions emanating from Pyongyang) have hit hard. Plus it seems that a mountain hosting North Korea’s nuclear test facilities has collapsed. So for now it suits the North Korean regime to pretend to want a new deal: buy time, but give away nothing that matters.

In short, North Korea can’t be trusted. But no less important, Kim Jong-un can’t trust Washington.

Look at the latest US decision to pull out of the Iran Deal, something that looks oddly like the sort of sophisticated international arrangement that might make sense for monitoring North Korea’s nuclear programmes. And then there’s Libya. Colonel Gaddafi did everything the West wanted by surrendering his most deadly weapons programmes, yet he ended butchered in a ditch after being bombed by Western capitals.  

Conclusion for the armchair pundit? All this Korean good news is nothing but an empty show or a dangerous exercise in self-delusion. Going nowhere, but looking pretty.  

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In July last year when the rhetoric between North Korea and Washington was getting alarmingly angry as Pyongyang tested new missiles, I made this suggestion:

Maybe the way to bring everyone together on this one is to use a very big What If? question, to get away from sterile bickering over Positions and drill down into real Interests and Needs.

What if:

● Korea is legally reunited under one flag in a complicated one-country-two-systems sort of way that USA/China/Russia/Japan together guarantee

● It accepts as part of the deal a phased withdrawal of US forces and denuclearisation/neutrality

Done. No-one is threatened. Everyone gets richer.

Perhaps something like this is what we are now seeing.

President Trump by profession and temperament loves deals and haggling. Perhaps he has offered (or opened the way to talking about offering) a deal featuring a controlled ‘decompression’ of the North Korean system that scales tensions right down on a verifiable basis but (crucially for Kim Jong-un and his inner loyalists) keeps Kim Jong-un in the leadership business. 

Perhaps the grim Gaddafi example is a model for how not to normalise a dictatorship: lots of diplomatic glory and a new sense of opening the economy to greedy Western companies, but no real change in governance. After all, where is there a good model in the Middle East for a steady successful movement from dictatorship to sustained democracy, of the sort seen across central Europe after communism collapsed? The Arab Spring protests seemed to be hoping for something like that, but look at the dismal results. 

In Asia it’s different. China, South Korea and Vietnam offer distinct sustained models for bringing in radical market reforms and a general opening of opportunities without crashing or punishing the ruling elites. Controlled and disciplined decompression.

Plus China, Japan, Russia and the USA all have reasons to put their diplomatic and economic weight behind a new deal for the Korean peninsula that reduces tensions and scales back military forces.  

All this offers a far wider spectrum of creative tough-minded options than anything available to Gaddafi. Perhaps to the point of giving Kim Jong-un serious food for thought:

“What if that strange Trump has a point? What if instead of the world seeing me as a big problem, the world starts seeing me as part of a huge solution?”

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Charles Crawford won Cicero Awards for speechwriting in 2016 and 2017. He writes at  

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