Dear Supreme Leader Kim,
I hope that salutation is okay. I realize you also are the newly minted General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea. And First Chairman of the National Defense Commission. In fact, when I visited your fine country a couple years back people also reverently referred to you as Young Marshall and Respected Comrade.
We haven’t met, but as someone interested in Korean affairs I have observed how you grew into your dominating role in North Korea and respect your ability to survive and thrive in what is one of the most opaque yet deadly political systems on earth. I will confess I initially was one of your skeptics, believing that you were more likely to be the frontman for others, perhaps for a time a system of collective leadership, or for a different strongman, such as your uncle.
But when you had him dragged out of the party meeting and executed, you made a believer of me. And when you took out your half-brother in such style — using a banned nerve agent at an international airport in a country with which the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had passable relations — I realized you had cojones of steel. Wow! I guess I can’t really offer congratulations, but I will admit to being impressed.
Then you shredded the Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience. No waiting for Washington! You just developed and tested both missiles and nuclear weapons. Even China joined in to approve ever-tougher United Nations sanctions, and you didn’t flinch. On my last visit your officials were very insistent that the DPRK wanted to be self-sufficient from every other nation, and it was apparent the heavy emphasis on “every” essentially meant the only state with whom your government traded substantially. The North really was going it essentially alone. And look what you were able to develop. Wow! Again, I’m impressed, though, truth be told, I wish you hadn’t done so. I mean, I’d hate to think about that big one you showcased back in October heading toward the D.C. area. Maybe you could knock Washington off your potential target list. Please?
The Trump years started off disastrously — all that “fire and fury” rhetoric and having a frankly puerile argument over who had the “bigger button.” Then came the wonderful summits, opening up an entirely new avenue to improve relations and find some modus vivendi both sides would live with. I want to emphasize that while I’d like to see denuclearization, I don’t expect it. I could live with serious disarmament, limiting the DPRK to a genuine deterrent but capping its capabilities. Of course, if the administration — any administration, frankly — cut a deal without getting all your nukes, there would be endless whining, whimpering, crying, shouting, gasping, and praying from members of the Washington Blob, or foreign policy establishment. Just between us, however, I think it would be nuts for you to trust the U.S. government and give up everything. After all, I remember watching Muammar Gaddafi’s fate on YouTube, and I suspect you did too. But it obviously would be fine with me if you did so.
Anyway, back to the main point. All the good vibes of Singapore disappeared at Hanoi. By the end of the Trump term you were downright grumpy. No offense, but blowing up the joint Korean liaison office?! I realize President Moon Jae-in can be a bit clingy. Still, that seemed a little over the top, don’t you think? Obviously, all the good vibes were gone. Too bad. I really had hoped to see another meeting between you and The Donald, perhaps highlighted by a hug and some hand-holding.
Now a new guy has taken over here in Washington. Well, more “new” than new. I mean, Joe Biden has been around for a century — okay, only half a century, but still, that is a long time for any politician to hang on. That’s about the same length as your granddad was in charge. Joe always has been goofy, like when he plagiarized the British Labor Party leader’s biography. Who does that? Well, Joe did.
For your purposes, however, this, well, goofball is new. And you gotta deal with him. What is the best way to do so? Just about everyone in Washington who studies North Korea expects you to make some sort of provocation, most likely a missile launch. Why, in a webinar last week one of the city’s most respected Korea analysts started down the list. Look at history. Look at statistics. Look at Trump’s experience. The only question in my buddy’s mind was when you’d push the button, or do whatever it is that fires the missile.
He made a lot of sense. But I’m writing to ask you not to do it. I realize that request is a little forward, since we’re not pen pals. In fact, we’ve never written each other, so it’s more than just a little forward. Still, I figured there wasn’t much downside. Even if you don’t like my idea, I can’t imagine you’ll waste any precious VX chemicals to take me out. At least until you get a sanctions rollback, I suspect money is going to be a little tight. Just a little joke between us!
Anyway, Jong-un, if I may, I understand why you find a missile test to be a tempting idea. Biden was part of the Obama administration, which came up with the moronic “strategic patience” idea. (Although, to be fair, it apparently didn’t provide that stupid name, which others bestowed.) Did Obama & Co. imagine that, if the U.S. “imperialists” (in fact, that’s a pretty apt description of U.S. policy, though I could never admit that in an American publication!) sat around feeling important, such a gifted man as yourself — after all, how else does one become Supreme Leader?! — would not take advantage of the resulting opportunity?
But Biden and those around him have witnessed the disastrous consequences of that policy. You might have been inclined to take a second-rate deal back then. Not now! And the Biden folks realize that, even though I’m sure they hate to admit fault. So the past is not likely to be prologue in this case.
What is almost certainly true is that the Korean peninsula is not their top priority. I know, I know … they should be eager to meet with someone from the sacred bloodline and all that stuff. Sorry, you just have to understand that Americans don’t do very well with royalty, fancy titles, mystical family tales, and the like. Anyway, the pandemic is a mess, the economy is a mess, the political system is a mess, and, well, you get the point. Biden is no great or even dear leader and must confront these problems before he considers any foreign issues except, say, Russia threatening nuclear war against America. Yeah, I know you’ve done that too, but Vladimir Putin really does have a bigger button than you do. So Biden has to take that into account.
Trying to force the administration’s hand with a missile launch — or, much worse, a nuclear test — would revive Washington’s war party, which pushes for military action against everything. If they saw Santa Claus making an unauthorized visit on Christmas Eve — sorry to mention a Christian holiday, but it still is big here! — they would be clamoring to nuke the North Pole. The late John McCain was their patron saint. No surprise, he wanted to bomb the DPRK, along with most everyone else. He and Lindsey Graham, who figured a nuclear war in Korea would be perfectly fine since it would be “over there,” seemed to get excited just thinking about the pleasure of wreaking death and destruction on your nation. Kind of like your granddad in 1950. A real kinship there. Oops, sorry! I guess America’s crackpot hawks just think it would be fun to play field marshal and make other people fight their battles. But I digress. Please don’t encourage these people. They really are irresponsible, even dangerous. And they are likely to grow even more desperate with Biden as president.
It isn’t enough to get the administration’s attention. You want to do so in a way in which they are inclined to sympathize with you. Telling them that you now can eradicate their existence is not likely to incline them toward pacific policies. In fact, now would be a good time to use your media skills — and they are impressive. None of your family compares. Dad rarely spoke in public. Granddad had that weird tumor or whatever on his neck. Your sister is so, so negative. C’mon, the South Koreans aren’t that bad, right?
Go on TV. Hit CNN. Heck, maybe even Fox or ultra-establishment BBC. Speak about the importance of peace to the next generation and your frustration with the obstacles Washington has erected to moving the dialogue forward. Say you’re worried that Biden is following discredited protocol and only worrying about big countries. So much for his equality schtick! Goad him into acting while you’re in a good mood, willing to forgive and forget.
Better yet, use your Moon connection. I know you think he’s a sniveling wimp and all that, but he’s actually got a pretty impressive background. Child of refugees — no need for us to mention which military they were fleeing. After all, your granddad was a bit indiscriminate in how he behaved during the late unpleasantness a few decades back.
Moon later served in the military. Battled the ruling junta — that should win some favor in your book! Ran a second time for president and won. And so far looks like he might be the only South Korean president in years not to face jail for corruption, though of course this is still early in the game.
Anyway, take him up on his proposals for cooperation and urge him to lean into the Biden crew. Moon should make the case for them to negotiate with you. Note the wisdom of the Americans giving Seoul some flexibility in making deals. Hint that you’re willing to put a little distance between you and the nation that shall remain unnamed to your north if the U.S. lightens up on the sanctions. Ask Washington if it really wants to return to the grand days of “strategic patience” when the DPRK zipped along preparing both missiles and nukes to hit America. All these would be more effective arguments, or warnings, coming from a third party, especially one of those allies Goofy Joe gets so excited about.
Let’s face it. In office just a couple weeks and the Biden folks already have crises with Russia and Burma. Do they really want to make it a trifecta with you shooting off a missile? Ask Moon to remind them that you showed off a bunch of great new weapons last October and then last month that would be quite photogenic if used in some way. Moon could ask Biden if the latter wants to explain to the American people why the North Korean threat is reemerging after he took office.
Seriously, dude, a lot of us here would like to see the DPRK and U.S. forge a passable relationship. No war, no threats, no angry rhetoric on either side. That won’t be easy, we know. But it will become much harder if you start shooting off missiles before the Biden folks have a chance to even post a letter. Give it some time, okay?
Again, I hope you don’t mind me writing. I don’t have Dennis Rodman’s basketball skills or pedigree, but I envy him getting to pal around with you. I hope we can meet on my next trip — which requires that there be a next trip, hint, hint!
Hang in there, in one of the world’s great political snake pits. And give the family my best, assuming you are still with the missus, whom we haven’t seen in a while. But it’s not my place to pry.
Until next time, with, well, not exactly admiration, but, say, respect,
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.