- - Sunday, March 1, 2020

Four consecutive U.S. administrations have tried to get the North Koreans to give up their nuclear program. To date, all efforts have failed; these have included threats, sanctions and economic incentives. 

Our country has not been alone in this. Russia, China, South Korea and Japan are all much more within the range of existing North Korean missiles and their efforts have been no more effective than ours. Perhaps it is time to offer to buy the program outright. If the five nations with the most to lose to the threat of North Korean missiles and nukes pool their money, they could make a very lucrative offer.

If this sounds far-fetched, consider the following. As best we can tell, the North Korean regime maintains its nuclear and ballistic missile capability for two reasons. The first is regime survival in a world where most civilized nations would prefer to see it go away. From Pyongyang’s perspective, this makes sense as they witnessed the fate that befell Saddam Hussein and Taliban regimes when each became unpalatable to the United States. From that standpoint, a nuclear deterrent makes good sense.

A second rationale is respect. North Korea is a small nation that has become an international pariah. If it can’t be loved, nukes make it feared. Fear breeds some degree of respect no matter how grudging. If the United States and the four other nations most impacted by Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile capability can address these concerns and back up their promises with hard cash, a solution to the North Korean problem might be possible.

The five parties would offer a firm fixed price for each nuclear facility, rocket base and warhead verifiably dismantled. In return, the five powers would guarantee that none would attempt or endorse regime change. This would address Pyongyang’s primary national security concern. The issue of international respect is trickier.



An invitation to join several key international organizations such as the G-8, Davos, and attend other major events would allow Kim Jong-un and his coterie to feel like part of the in crowd. Would they deserve it? Of course not, but it would be a cheap price to pay for eliminating the nukes.

Make no mistake, this proposal is bribery on an international scale. Mr. Kim and the senior members of the regime are serial kleptocrats. Bribery — formerly known as tribute — has gotten a bad reputation in the West, but it has been an accepted way of doing business in Asia for millennia and doesn’t hold the stigma there that it does here. Does it reward bad conduct? It does, but the North Koreans will act badly whatever we do. 

We can couch the money in terms of humanitarian aid to soothe the consciences of the more delicate among us, but little — if any — of the aid will be seen by the average North Korean. People have been expecting the imminent collapse of the Kim dynasty under its own weight since 1991. Someday it will happen. When that does occur, the management of the aftermath will be much easier if we don’t have to worry about who controls the nukes.

Given his business background in New York City, President Trump would likely be more open to the flexibility inherent in this approach than his predecessors. In addition, he is on relatively good terms with the Russians and Chinese as well as Mr. Kim. Ironically, his relations with our traditional allies in Tokyo and Seoul are cooler than with past American chief executives; but this is largely due disagreement over defense burden sharing, and these would be largely overcome by events if such an agreement were reached.

Mr. Trump undoubtedly understands that the pot was not sweet enough in prior negotiations with Mr. Kim, but by combining resources with the other four partners, Mr. Trump might well be able to make the North Koreans an offer that they couldn’t refuse. This kind of deal crafting is the president’s traditional forte and the international circumstances are favorable.

With the exception of Iran, the United States is not in a crisis mode anywhere internationally, and the Iranians are still licking their wounds from the events surrounding the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani. There probably won’t be a better time to try to resolve the North Korean dilemma. Pyongyang’s decision-making is opaque. Their reaction would be unpredictable, but the worst they can do is to say no.

• Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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