If you want to know what’s going through the mind of the North Korean regime, go back to the murder of Muammar Gaddafi. The way the North Koreans look at it, Gaddafi gave up his nuclear bomb and lost his head. The lesson of Saddam Hussein’s end is another cautionary tale for the North Koreans. If Saddam had held on to his weapons of mass destruction — and lots of them — the U.S. would have had second thoughts about invading his country. Or so I’m told by a former CIA colleague, and one of the best-informed North Korean watchers around.
North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, like his father and his grandfather, exists in a rococo fantasy. He truly believes that North Korea possesses an invincible military, that his generals are brilliant, that he could take Seoul in a matter of days. He also believes that as a superpower, North Korea deserves a nuclear arsenal. There can’t be any other avenue to the international respect North Korea deserves.
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It’s in this context, as delusional as it may be, that it’s close to certain that Kim has no intention of backing down in the current confrontation with the U.S. While it’s unlikely his intention is to start a war with the U.S., he also doesn’t intend to give up an inch to cool things down. And superpowers don’t submit at the sound of a little saber rattling.
Classic diplomacy hasn’t worked either. The State Department recently explored the possibility of bypassing the North Korean regime hard-liners, especially those inside the Kim family, and instead make some sort of deal with the rational elements in the leadership. But it proved impossible to break through the impenetrable armor of this little hermit kingdom.
China has been another fruitless avenue. Although the Chinese provide 90% of North Korea’s fuel and nearly half of its food, there’s only so much pressure the Chinese can bring to bear on the North Koreans. Again, it goes back to North Koreans’ sense of self-interest, i.e. their survival. They believe that when push comes to shove, the Chinese (and the Russians) can’t do anything to keep the leaders of Pyongyang from losing their heads. Just as America’s sweet words whispered in Gaddafi’s ear got him nothing, Chinese promises are worthless.
To date North Korea’s threats and actions have been mostly bluster. The missiles it moved to its east coast on Thursday cannot hit American bases in Guam. It was a signal to the U.S. that Pyongyang won’t be intimidated. All the B-2 bombers and F-22 fighters flying along North Korea’s borders will be met with escalation.
It’s a mystery to me why Washington ever thought that dancing with the feathers of fallen dictators like Gaddafi and Saddam would leverage our influence with dictators like Kim. Anyhow, the point now is that we’d better start looking at a way to walk this thing back rather than tightening the tourniquet.
Nothing is for certain when it comes to North Korea, but the chances are good it will shoot something up to restore its dignity — perhaps a South Korean fishing boat or another South Korean navy vessel. Let’s hope that this is the worst, or that some accident doesn’t occur. In the meantime we’d better start thinking about how we can quietly but demonstrably figure out how to help North Korea get its “respect” back.
I recognize that this would be tantamount to political hara-kiri considering the crisis, but we may want to start thinking about letting North Korea into the nuclear club. Just some sort of nominal membership: a couple bombs and regular invitations to club functions. They’re about to have a functioning bomb anyhow, so why not make the most of it? The downside to this of course is that Iran would want to be in the club, and then Saudi Arabia, and — I don’t — Venezuela. It’s something that would have to be worked out with the North Koreans.
I know this isn’t a pretty position to be in. But it’s better than a full-on war with a delusional and paranoid young man with a chip on his shoulder.
Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, is TIME.com’s intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.