Editor’s Note: S. Nathan Park is a Washington D.C.-based attorney whose commentary on the Korean Peninsula has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Financial Times, Atlantic, Foreign Policy and elsewhere. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper likes to recount a story from his visit to North Korea in 2014. Clapper’s North Korean counterpart would spew anti-American vitriol, and if Clapper interjected, he would simply yell over the director.
As Clapper recalled, only one thing he said silenced the North Korean: “The United States has no permanent enemies.” Clapper told him how the US made friends out of former enemies such as Germany, Japan and recently Vietnam. Clapper’s North Korean counterpart was receptive, suggesting the United States and North Korea should normalize their relationship.
Obviously, normalization did not happen then. But today, as the Singapore summit between the United States and North Korea approaches, we may be closer to achieving this than ever before.
Although the questions of whether and how North Korea will denuclearize dominate the pre-summit discussion, it would be worth sparing a moment for the important long-term question: Can the United States and North Korea normalize relations – and possibly even be friends? As unlikely as it may seem, friendly relations between the US and North Korea are more attainable than might be imagined, particularly as North Korea’s relationship with China – North Korea’s foremost ally and guarantor of security – has undergone significant changes in the recent years.
The Sino-North Korea relationship has steadily deteriorated for the past decade. The solidarity that the two countries built by fighting together in the Korean War is a distant memory. Shen Zhihua, China’s foremost scholar on the Korean War, recently went so far as to declare last year that “North Korea is China’s latent enemy,” and “China and North Korea are no longer brothers in arms, … “
For its part, North Korea fears that China is bent on conquest. Much like the way in which China intimidates the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam by making outrageous territorial claims in the South China Sea, China appeared to lay the theoretical foundation for dominion over North Korea through the Northeast Project, a government-funded academic project that argued much of the North Korean territory historically belonged to the ancient Chinese empire.
North Korea also fears China’s economic dominance, as China accounts for more than 90% of North Korea’s trade. While it is true that China does not want North Korea to collapse, China might not come to the rescue if the Kim Jong Un regime begins to fail, preferring instead to install a more pro-China regime. Indeed, one theory for the reason why Kim ordered the assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong Nam is that the younger Kim was trying to head off the Chinese attempt to use his half-brother as the replacement leader for a puppet regime in North Korea.
The relationship reached a nadir in the recent years owing to the rise of Xi Jinping. After Xi took office as China’s president in 2012, he spent years battling the so-called “Shanghai Clique,” made up of the former President Jiang Zemin and his cronies. As the Shanghai Clique was pro-North Korea, the Kim regime became openly hostile to Xi.
North Korea’s nuclearization does not help matters either. China fears that a nuclear North Korea means greater US military presence, as well as an increased possibility of US military action in the region. China found North Korea’s nuclear program distasteful enough to join the US-led sanctions against North Korea in late 2017, which North Korea saw as a betrayal. And despite Kim and Xi being allied leaders since they assumed their respective offices, the two never met each other until late March of this year, only after the possibility US-North Korea summit emerged.
In short, North Korea is in serious need of a military and economic counterweight against China – and the United States can serve in that capacity. True, it is distasteful to be friends with a regime responsible for massive human rights violations. Yet pragmatism is a long-standing tradition in US foreign relations. Just consider that Mao Zedong was on the short list of the history’s greatest monsters, but Richard Nixon shook his hand.
Pragmatists would look beyond the present conditions and examine how a friendly relationship with North Korea would serve the long-term US national interest. With the rise of China, East Asia is far and away the most important region in the world for the United States. If the US could count North Korea as a friend, it would be adding a friendly state located at the doorstep of China.
Imagining such a friendship also allows for creative deal-making in the upcoming summit. Here is one suggestion: What if the United States established a concession area within North Korea, made significant economic investment in the form of joint industrial parks and tourist facilities, and placed a small contingent of US troops within the concession area to protect the investment?
Having a physical presence in North Korea allows the United States to make sporadic and unannounced inspections of North Korea’s nuclear facilities – to ensure Kim is complying with the denuclearization program. For North Korea, having the US troops within its territory serves as a guarantee that the United States will not attack the regime and that the US will intervene should China threaten North Korea.
It may be difficult to believe any of this is possible – just as much as it would have been difficult, say in the 1970s, to imagine the US president dining in a corner restaurant in Hanoi or attending a baseball match in Havana. But they both happened: Barack Obama visited Vietnam and Cuba and began to normalize relations with both countries.
James Clapper is right – the United States has no permanent enemies. To pry off a client state from the US’s chief rival, to make it a friend in the world’s most important region, is a once-a-generation opportunity. The US would be remiss not to consider it.