When president Trump first announced his intention to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, many criticized it as a naive decision that legitimizes the North Korean communist regime. But the US president meeting with the North Korean dictator does not legitimize the North Korean regime: that regime guaranteed its legitimacy when it developed nuclear weapons.
A government’s legitimacy comes from its monopoly on the use of force. A government preserves this legitimacy when it maintains that monopoly, and it loses this legitimacy when it loses that monopoly, such as through revolution, civil war, or other coup d’etat.
Like any monopoly, a government erects barriers to competition. That’s why the North Korean government has, for decades, run its country like a concentration camp. There are no political parties, newspapers, private corporations, religions, militias, private schools, or other institutions in North Korea that could challenge its government’s monopoly. So that no such competitors emerge, the North Korean government jails or kills people who trade in bibles, consumer goods, or anti-government speech.
But a government is also composed of factions. These factions include a police force, a military, and agencies that manage education, industry, and agriculture. In North Korea, there’s also another faction: the ruling family. Kim Jong Un is its patriarch. He’s protected that faction from competition by systematically killing and purging faction leaders within his own government. He’s even killed his own brother-in-exile. Faction leaders in North Korea stay loyal to Mr. Kim because he rewards them with wealth and status and eliminates them if he suspects they’re too ambitious.
Yet a government’s legitimacy can be challenged from abroad. The North Korean government prevents this by tightly controlling its borders and the flow of foreign information into North Korean society. The government jails or kills foreigners who challenge its monopoly: missionaries, political activists, even tourists. And North Korea blunts challenges from foreign governments by constantly threatening World War 3, maintaining the means to annihilate millions of people with weapons of mass destruction, and even provoking war by occasionally bombing, kidnapping, and killing South Koreans, Japanese, and even Americans. Hence, no matter how boldly the North Korean government asserts itself, potential competitors to its monopoly—whether human rights activists or foreign heads of state—remain fearful.
Enter nuclear weapons. These are the ultimate guarantor of the North Korean government’s legitimacy, both within the North Korean government and internationally. As much as foreign governments feared a second Korean War before the North Korean government successfully tested a nuclear bomb, they feared it far more afterward. And any faction leaders inside the North Korean government who thought it was reckless and wasteful to starve and isolate their country for decades in pursuit of nuclear weapons finally saw that sacrifice pay dividends.
There’s little chance the North Korean government will abandon its nuclear weapons. If that government wanted to “normalize” its relations with foreign countries and enrich its people, it would have done so many years ago and saved itself the risks and costs of pursuing its nuclear weapons program. And if it were a trustworthy partner in de-nuclearization, then it would not have violated multiple international agreements to abstain from developing nuclear weapons.
The North Korean government’s primary goal has been to guarantee its legitimacy through nuclear weapons. Forfeiting nuclear weapons will reduce the North Korean government’s legitimacy. An effective inspections regime that gives foreign governments and non-governmental organizations prerogatives in North Korea will reduce that government’s legitimacy even further. And within the North Korean government, faction leaders mindful of what happened to the governments of Iraq, Ukraine, and Libya after their respective disarmaments will be more likely—not less likely—to challenge the ruling family for supremacy. Kim Jong Un wanted this status quo badly enough to kill his own brother for it: he’s not going to walk away in exchange for benefits that he could have achieved long ago already.
Yet the status quo is unacceptable to the United States. It is reckless for the US president to abide by a situation in which there’s a single man who controls nuclear weapons, jails and kills Americans, whose government has proliferated nuclear and missile technology with hostile regimes around the world, and who is surrounded by people that are scared to death of defying his orders. Any given day, the fate of Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, or even Los Angeles depends on a recurring decision by Kim Jong Un to not push the button. But Kim Jong Un is not a just or patient God. He is a man subject to the stress of running a prison-country, constantly worried that sooner or later someone might challenge his leadership. Or else his absolute power in North Korea will corrupt him absolutely, and he’ll succumb to delusions of grandeur: the only thing worse than Kim Jong Un being obsessed about his legitimacy would be an obsession about becoming a Great Man of History.
It is more prudent for president Trump to annihilate North Korea than to perpetuate this status quo. Kim Jong Un must be convinced that president Trump prefers such annihilation over the status quo in order for Mr. Kim to become willing to change the status quo. But such a war would be perhaps the third worst event in human history. So it’s essential for the president to first check whether some accommodation is possible that preserves the North Korean government’s legitimacy without normalizing the status quo—let alone changing the status quo in Kim Jong Un’s obvious favor through yet another regime-enriching de-nuclearization treaty.
A reunification between North Korea and South Korea might be the best and most reliable path forward. One vision for reunification entails a joint government between North and South Korea and the withdrawal of American military forces. To preserve his own legitimacy, Kim Jong Un would retain sovereignty over his factions and his nuclear arsenal. Geographically, Kim’s government would be concentrated in Pyongyang. Nominally, Mr. Kim would share status with the South Korean government as the heads-of-state ruling the Korean peninsula. The demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea would be policed by the South Korean government to prevent the mass migration of millions of impoverished North Koreans. The South Korean government would likewise police the peninsula’s international borders to guard against both weapons proliferation and mass migration. Investment in the economic development of the North Korean hinterland would be a generational project.
Under such a scenario, the threat of war would check against abuse. American interests in nonproliferation would be addressed by having a trustworthy government manage the borders. An annihilationist war against North Korea would remain unpalatable, but its possibility would provide the North Korean government with greater incentive than under the status quo to abstain from aggression or weapons proliferation. And the maintenance of its nuclear arsenal would continue to guarantee the North Korean government’s long-sought legitimacy and deterrence power.
Lew Jan Olowski is a married father of two and an attorney in Maryland.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.