This week’s Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un doesn’t matter all that much. Ignore the arguments over whether Trump and Kim meeting was a good idea or a bad one. The summit was mostly just a photo-op for both leaders, and the statement they signed doesn’t offer anything new on denuclearization. How North Korea really ends—and it will end—is what actually matters.
There are only three outcomes to the long-simmering North Korean question: North Korea will continue to reform economically and become integrated into the world, it will collapse, or there will be war. The first two possibilities are best, yet even then the second outcome would be a dangerously messy affair.
The reason these are the only possible endings is because the North Korean system cannot endure forever in its current form. America must now choose which outcome it prefers to pursue. Of course, the United States should keep the peace as best it can by relying on deterrence indefinitely. Yet deterrence can’t answer the question of where North Korea is headed. What can provide some insight, however, is how America treats North Korea going forward and whether Kim decides that economic liberalization and trade are better than isolation.
Starting in 1989, North Korea’s economy crashed, with their gross domestic product falling from $16 billion to $5 billion. That crash yielded famines, drought, cannibalism, and an attempted military coup in 1995. It was a nightmare that showed what happens when the centralization of communism is mixed with tight sanctions, natural disaster, and decreased assistance from major allies. In 2016, North Korea’s economy finally recovered to its 1989 levels, and Pyongyang has engaged in extensive—but tentative—market reforms ever since. These have included allowing competing products, Western-style shopping malls, and a growing number of semi-private enterprises.
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This history lesson is valuable because it illustrates how close North Korea came, and still could come, to collapse under the right conditions. It also highlights a little-known fact: North Korea is undergoing some liberalization and more may be on the way. According to a 2016 study by the Carnegie Endowment, black market activity accounts for 30 to 50 percent of North Korea’s gross domestic product and a new middle class is emerging.
The truth is that North Korea’s ideology of extreme self-reliance, known as Juche, is not only a failure, but increasingly a veneer used for legitimacy. North Korea’s markets are far from free, but the state has learned to turn a blind eye to most underground activity and, in a classic example of doublethink, even claims that some black markets are just another form of Juche. This is similar to China’s claim that its system is “socialism with Chinese characteristics” rather than state-capitalism: China calls itself socialist to maintain the legitimacy of the ruling communist party even though it started liberalizing its economy in 1978. China will always pay homage to Mao and North Korea to the Kims, but doing so does not necessarily mean rejecting economic reforms—especially if those reforms let their regimes fund their militaries and maintain power.
America faces a choice: whether to keep North Korea in the penalty box in hopes of some real deal, or begrudgingly accept it as a nuclear power, as has been done with Russia, China, and Pakistan. The chances are still very high that Kim will keep his weapons no matter what he says. If America is willing to play hardball, perhaps it can achieve a rollback of North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities that are beginning to threaten the U.S. homeland. Such a rollback might also be the only realistic denuclearization Kim would ever agree to and would improve America’s security. However, playing hardball comes with risks.
Trump’s maximum pressure campaign helped bring Kim to the bargaining table, but that campaign relies on the cooperation of China, Russia, South Korea, and a host of other countries to fully maintain sanctions. Yet China has violated sanctions many times, and at the moment South Korean companies are eager for sanctions to be loosened. Furthermore, consider that Kim is already telling his people that the summit means America will lift sanctions again. If sanctions aren’t enforced—or America foolishly removes them in return for more promises—then the maximum pressure campaign will cease to be effective. On the other hand, there is the (admittedly less likely) danger that, if China did stay somewhat on board, then increasing sanctions could put North Korea back into the situation it was in during the 1990s. Too weak and sanctions won’t change North Korea’s behavior; too strong and they risk triggering a political collapse.
America thus returns to square one in trying to shape how this crisis ends. North Korea could reform economically and open up to the world, or it could not. America could decide to live with a nuclear North Korea, or it could not. Both of these decisions have broad consequences. Kim’s state cannot survive in perpetuity without sanctions relief or further economic reform. Therefore, Kim must either come to an accommodation with the U.S.—regardless of whether he gives up his nuclear arsenal—or continue his reforms anyway and hope that others will violate sanctions to keep him afloat. So far, the latter option has been his preference and it may continue to work.
The only other outcome is war. While that’s unlikely to happen so long as the threat of mutually assured destruction is credible, an armed conflict could still occur as a result of miscommunication or a preemptive American attack on Kim’s nuclear arsenal.
America needs to decide whether it can live with a nuclear North Korea, and both countries need to decide what they want their endgame to be. If America wants Kim to reform, how will it help him? If the U.S. wants to put North Korea back in the penalty box, does that mean deterrence or the use of economic or military pressure? And would that pressure be enough to keep Kim down or so overwhelming it causes collapse or war?
America must decide because one day one of these outcomes will come true—the question is which.
John Dale Grover is a writer for Young Voices and a fellow at Defense Priorities. He is also currently a graduate student at George Mason University’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. His articles have appeared in Forbes, The National Interest, Fox News, and Real Clear Defense.