About those “Beautiful Letters”

One consequence of government by bluster and contempt is that, even when Donald Trump is right, the president is unable to make the case for his policies.  Take those “beautiful letters” he keeps getting from Kim Jong Un, leader of North Korea. The editor of a new book of essays outlines the logic that Trump has failed to present.

North Korea: Peace? Nuclear War? (Mosavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government, 2019 ), edited by William Overholt, contains eighteen essays by leading Korea specialists, including one by China’s foremost expert on Korean affairs and another by former US ambassador to Korea Kathleen Stephens, who as US chargé d’affaires in Belfast oversaw Northern Ireland’s Good Friday agreement. (Stephens first learned Korean as a Peace Corps volunteer, before entering the Foreign Service.) A wide range of views are represented, but the authoritative voice in the volume belongs to Overholt. His summary is here. In a separate letter about the book, the veteran Asia hand compressed the argument of his essay.

A strategy of forced de-nuclearization by bludgeoning through sanctions has no chance of success. A strategy of achieving de-nuclearization as a byproduct of achieving peace has some chance of success.

North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, backed by Stalin and Mao Zedong. UN forces, led by the United States, defended the south. Soon Chinese troops and Soviet pilots supported the north. The war ended in stalemate in 1953.  North Korea has been ruled ever since by three generations of the Kim family:  Kim Il Sung, until 1994; his son, Kim Jong Il, until 2011; and his grandson, Kim Jong Un, since the death of his father.

The situation has changed over the years, says Overholt: gradually since 1978, when China put aside autarkic revolutionary ideology and began its “great leap outward” into the global market economy; rapidly, after 2011. As a scion of the ruling dynasty, Kim Jong Un was educated, among other places, in Switzerland.  He has absorbed the lessons of an Asian style of development strategy that has lifted almost all of the region to prosperity. He also has a longer time horizon than his father, says Overholt. His father had been 57 when he acceded to power.

Kim has risked his position by imposing very different budget priorities from those of his father and grandfather, including the development of nuclear weapons. He has opened his country socially, at least to the extent that North Korean citizens now know what they are missing. He has employed traditionally brutal methods to protect his power.

The US has replied with sanctions, demanding de-nuclearizaion before any relief.  Both sides have good reason to mistrust one another, Overholt says. North Korean behavior in the past often has been deceptive, unreliable, and vicious.  The US pursued a policy of “regime change” in Libya after Muammar Gaddafi de-nuked and set an alarming example.

But the situation in China has changed, too, in the space of years since it became a great power. China’s policy is to stabilize the peninsula. Any deal will require Chinese security guarantees for the North Korean regime.  South Korea will have to agree, too. The South Korean population is fully supportive of the peace process; its government is fully engaged.  So are the Chinese and US negotiators, especially after Kim was said to have executed one of the negotiators and four other advisers after the breakdown of his second summit with the American president.

Time is short, Overholt says. “Kim is vulnerable and may be overthrown or killed if there is no early progress toward peace and economic development.  His opponents want a return to the old military priorities and confrontational ways. Kim Jong Un has promised de-escalation, but only in stages and over a considerable period of time. Trump and Kim and their respective advisers are thus in somewhat parallel positions, dealing with a national establishment that looks to the past instead of the future. Overholt:  “Early incremental but decisive progress is the only hope.”

Trump can’t do the job of building support for a China-mediated agreement to begin to lift sanctions, and the press won’t do it for him. The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un (TK, 2019), by Anna Fifield, of The Washington Post, has just appeared.  It looks interesting, in this adaptation from the book on Kim’s four years in Europe, or this New Yorker interview with the author.  But the ridicule of the title delivers her ultimate judgment.  There is much to object to about both Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.  Failing to seek to act on an urgent problem is not among them.

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Martin Feldstein died last week, at 79.  A Harvard University professor and long-time president of the National Bureau of Economic Research, he was the most influential policy economist of the Reagan generation. He was remembered by The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The EconomistEconomic Principals appreciated Feldstein in 2008, on the occasion of his retirement from the NBER.  Friends who provided encouragement and social support to the engagement of a Long Island Jew and an Irish Catholic from Boston consider Feldstein’s marriage to Kathleen Foley Feldstein, also an economist, to have been spectacularly successful.

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Added this week to EP’s Bookshelf:  Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974, by Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelitzer (Norton, 2019)


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