Calling North Korea ‘crazy’ won’t help with anything

Trump’s North Korea policy will reportedly focus more on pressuring Beijing to constrain North Korea, and on additional sanctions.

Two things to keep in mind: don’t underestimate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and don’t forget South Korea. …

Kim’s desire for deterrence – to not end up like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi – helps explain the existence of its weapons program. Someone who has participated in more than a decade of Track 2 dialogues with the North Koreans once recounted to me how North Koreans asked them: “Would the Americans have gone in and done what they did to Gaddaffi, and to Syria, if they had what we have?’

One possible theory is that the more dangerous it presents itself, the more it can milk from countries like China and especially South Korea – who are more incentivized than the United States to have a calmer Pyongyang: the former because it fears a North Korean collapse, and the latter because Pyongyang has for decades threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,” and, because the South Korean capital is so close to the border between the two countries, possesses the weaponry to do so.

Kim might expect another payday from Seoul, especially considering that when South Koreans go the polls in May, they will almost certainly elect a president who favors engagement with Pyongyang. …

South Korea also funneled money to North Korea through Kaesong, and industrial zone near the border that the two sides ran jointly. In a February 2016 statement after Seoul shut the zone, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said 70% of the money it intended for wages and fees had instead been funneled into Pyongyang’s weapons program, and for luxury goods for Kim. …

China provides a market, and access to the rest of the financial world, but South Korea provides the cash. If Seoul decides to again gift Kim or other members of the elite hundreds of millions of dollars – a not unlikely outcome – that takes the bite out of sanctions.

South Korea has the most to gain (eventual unification of the peninsula) and lose (a bloody war, the destruction of Seoul) from the North Korea situation. It’s important to remember that $450m in cash goes a long way, especially in North Korea. That’s why Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson should keep South Korea in the loop.

Let’s stop calling North Korea ‘crazy’ and understand their motives