Alon Preiss: Pyongyang Could Have Been Our Friend

North Korea is just about the worst country in the world, everyone else agrees, and has agreed for years. I don’t agree; but that’s not what this column is about.

The relative evil of the Kim regime can be debated by Ivy League eggheads — how do they compare to the governments of Russia, Syria, Gaza and so on? — but I’ll concede the point, for the sake of brevity. In 2021, Human Rights Watch wrote, “North Korea in 2020 remained one of the most repressive countries in the world. Under the rule of Kim Jong Un, the third leader of the nearly 75-year Kim dynasty, the totalitarian government deepened repression and maintained fearful obedience using threats of execution, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, and forced labor.” 

So they’re not a country to which most of us would want to defect.

North Korea is subject to a brutal sanctions regime, the most severe in the world; it’s cash-starved but ammunition rich, and also possesses nuclear technology. Not only that, but it’s also run by a canny leader who knows how to survive against the odds.

President Trump, during his administration, engaged in extensive talks with President Kim, which his critics derided as an unseemly, unnecessary overture to the worst totalitarian tyranny in the world.

North Korea is more strategically important than anyone seemed to understand at the time, and, after several rounds of ridicule, Trump gave up his overtures. The public explanation was that, like India, Pakistan, Israel, China, Russia, France and the United States, North Korea was unwilling to denuclearize completely, but Trump had never seemed to care much about that; he seemed much more interested in winning a new ally, and most likely gave up his negotiations from lethargy, because it was too much work to struggle against the status quo. The strategy behind suspension of negotiations was that the best way to get North Korea to agree to give up its nuclear weapons was to end talks for the time being and continue sanctions, with the aim of bringing a weakened North Korea back to the table eventually.

However, as I wrote in Audere Magazine, back in early 2022, North Korea was never going to give up its nuclear weapons and go the way of Libya and Ukraine, so it would have to give up legitimate world markets. And if the world denies a country legitimate markets, that country will seek illegitimate markets, which for North Korea meant the weapons trade, both conventional and nuclear.

The following excerpt, which has been edited for space, explains what my concerns were at the time:  

[I]f faced with a choice between dealing with terrorists or watching his citizens starve, Kim will deal. If we continue to embargo North Korean ceramics and restaurants, then President Kim will open up new military markets with our enemies.

With the embargo in place, Kim is also more likely to see the U.S. and the West as intractable enemies, which encourages him to maintain and increase his nuclear arsenal and seek security arrangements with our enemies, with good reason. If we lift the embargo, allow trade to flow between our two nations, none of that will happen. While North Korea will not denuclearize, the regime may view its nuclear activities as less urgent.

Keeping the embargo in place hardens North Korea’s enmity, strengthens our adversaries and puts our safety at risk. Lifting the embargo improves our security.

John Delury, associate professor at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul, South Korea, reached the same conclusion in 2016.

“ ‘Comprehensive’ sanctions send North Korea deeper into isolation,” he wrote, “and increase the risks of a war that no one wants, a war that could be truly catastrophic.”

Now we see the results of our canny strategy.

CNN reports that Pyongyang provided both weapons and training to Hamas in advance of the October 7 massacre and may have been tactically involved in the attack.

The atheist North Korean state has no particular kinship with an apocalyptic religious cult, but, as CNN noted, “Pyongyang is known for being transactional and has long been willing to sell weapons to anyone who would pay. Its arms proliferation in the Middle East is well documented.”

In other words, Pyongyang follows the money, and no one has more money than the U.S. and its allies. But we gave Pyongyang the cold shoulder, and so it turned elsewhere for cash.

October 7 is only the latest bad result of our foolish North Korean policy, and it is not the worst. When Russia was short on weapons and ammunition for its despicable war on Ukraine, it turned to Pyongyang and quickly replenished its arsenal, which will allow it to fight on.

If the U.S. had continued its efforts at détente, if we had welcomed one more tyrant to the table to sit alongside Rodrigo Duterte and Alexander Lukashenko, the October 7 massacre might never have happened (certainly it would not have happened with Pyongyang’s support), the war in the Middle East would never have started, the Saudia Arabia/Israel treaty wouldn’t have been scuttled, and Moscow would now have considerably more difficulty maintaining its war of aggression.

But what makes the Russia arrangement so ominous is its public nature. This was no under-the-table deal, kept secret and denied. The arms transaction came with a high-profile hours-long summit in September between Kim and Putin, during which both leaders heralded a new era in cooperation between the two nations; as widely reported, Putin gets ammunition for his war, Kim gets nuclear technology for his country’s defense, both nations get a new trading partner to stay afloat, and Iran, the leader of the “axis of resistance,” gets a new ally.

While the Hamas deal was just a quiet transaction, the Russia summit was a realignment, something that cannot be reversed. There’s really nothing that the U.S. or its allies can do now. North Korea has settled, probably for the very long-term, onto the “other team” in the new Cold War, whose players, in addition to Russia, Iran and Hamas, also include Belarus and Hezbollah. As this axis grows more powerful, China may commit more fully.

Think of it: we scuttled a chance to bring North Korea, a strategically important nation, into our camp because it would not give up its nuclear technology, a decision that has had the result of increasing that nation’s nuclear capabilities, solidifying Russia’s alliance against us and setting the middle east on fire.

You may argue that North Korea is too politically unlike the U.S. to make a good ally, but, again, North Korea is transactional. It’s “juche” political philosophy advocates mostly self-reliance; so what happens beyond its borders doesn’t matter. It doesn’t want to export revolution.

This was all so foreseeable, even for someone like me, a guy without any highly placed sources, no politician friends, not even a subscription to FP. This was even foreseeable to one Donald J. Trump, who made North Korea a top priority during his administration. Anyone watching the negotiations could see that Trump didn’t especially care of Pyongyang denuclearized, he just wanted North Korea to be our friend and ally, which Kim desperately wanted as well. But a bunch of seasoned foreign policy hands at State pulled him back from the brink.

This was one time that Trump should have trusted his instincts.


Alon Preiss is the author of A Flash of Blue Sky (2015) and In Love With Alice (2017), which are both available from Chickadee Prince Books.

Image: Peteranta / Pixabat

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