Editor’s Note: Fareed Zakaria is the host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” This article is adapted from the conclusion of his latest special, “The Two Faces of Kim Jong Un.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author.
The world will watch nervously as President Donald Trump meets Kim Jong Un this coming week in Singapore. Two mercurial personalities, a history of geopolitical tension, nuclear weapons – what could go wrong?
In fact, the summit has one benefit, regardless of the outcome. As the two sides meet and talk, it probably ends the idea of North Korea as crazy. Some of Washington’s biggest mistakes have been when it has treated countries or governments as 10 feet tall and fanatical or lunatic. And for years, the conventional wisdom about North Korea was that it was unpredictable, irrational and thus undeterrable. After all, people said, just look at the bizarre rituals and crazy haircuts of its leaders.
In fact, as I have often pointed out, the North Korean regime has been rational, strategic and successful – given its core goal, survival. It has preserved its basic form of government for 70 years, persevering through the breakdown of the Soviet Union and its empire, the Arab Spring and the demise of other Asian dictatorships, from South Korea to Taiwan to Indonesia. How many family dynasties have been able to hand over power, father to son to grandson?
North Korea endures because it is repressive, but many other regimes were also pretty brutal, frocom Romania to Iraq to Libya. The Kim family is also shrewd at the art of survival.
Look at the world from Kim Jong Un’s perspective. By the time he came to power, the regime had lost its great patron, the Soviet Union. Its closest ally, China, with whom it fought the Korean War, now viewed it as a nuisance, often voting to sanction North Korea at the United Nations. And the most powerful country in the world, the United States, often expressed a desire to see wholesale regime change in Pyongyang.
So, Kim Jong Un accelerated the policy of his father and grandfather: He bought insurance, in the form of a robust nuclear capacity. Having achieved its security umbrella, North Korea now appears ready to talk. And it will probably propose a freeze, a ban on tests, even a rollback.
But it would take a great deal to make North Korea destroy its entire nuclear capacity. It has historically appeared willing to do so only in return for the end of the US-South Korea military alliance, formal recognition by Washington, and large amounts of aid.
The negotiations contain serious risks. Any deal that leaves North Korea with nuclear weapons, and yet eases sanctions and provides aid, would cause dismay in all of Asia and leave South Korea and Japan vulnerable. Since Pyongyang has cheated often in the past, the treaty and inspections would have to be far more intrusive even than the Iran deal.
But whatever the risks, it is certainly worth talking to North Korea.
In doing so, we will realize that it is a rational regime. And we will also understand that if negotiations fail, it can be contained. North Korea is capable of being deterred. But it also capable of outwitting an American president, especially one too eager to make a deal.