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Sungtae (Jacky) Park is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.
A version of this piece was first published on CSIS PacNet here.
As the top-level summit between the United States and North Korea nears, policy analysts have been expressing skepticism about the Trump administration’s goal of complete denuclearization of North Korea and calling for tempered expectations and objectives. They argue that North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons program that Kim Jong Un sees as critical to the survival of his regime and that Pyongyang will use the summit and negotiations to buy time and loosen sanctions while making limited concessions.
While I am a pessimist myself, I worry that cognitive bias is leading to excessive pessimism. An outcome that experts might find satisfactory, while falling short of complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID), might be possible.
Cognitive bias #1: Bad guys do it better
The first factor that affects analyses of North Korea is a belief that the North Koreans are brilliant manipulators and strategists, while U.S. officials are incompetent and regularly being duped. The notion that “bad guys do it better” seems to be ingrained in every aspect of the U.S. policy community’s view of the world, whether in discussions about North Korea, Russia, China, or Iran. Consistent with this view, the Washington policy establishment has accused Donald Trump of being manipulated into a summit with Kim and pursuing the unrealistic goal of complete denuclearization. Ironically, Trump himself has accused previous U.S. presidents of being “outplayed” by the North Koreans and has pledged to be different.
Is this perception true? Many analysts have argued that the United States has had an increasingly dysfunctional national security decision-making process since the end of the Cold War, but a working process does exist. The separation of powers in the U.S. government often leads to confusion and delays in policy implementation, but Congress also brings a level of oversight to the executive branch. The shift in power at the White House from one party to another sometimes brings changes in policy, but it also prevents foreign affairs from being dominated by a single school of thought.
North Korea’s policy process remains a black box, but it is hard to imagine that it functions properly in a setting where officials risk being purged if they say the wrong thing. Moreover, while North Korean officials have access to outside information, they do not have the same level of information freedom that exists in the United States and are working in an ideological framework into which they were indoctrinated as children. North Korea’s intelligence apparatus is brutal, but North Koreans do not have intellectual and technological resources to match those of the U.S. government. There is also no accountability in North Korea, and Kim makes decisions with his close associates and sycophantic advisors.
While North Korea has a clear strategy in negotiations with the United States, it is dealing with as much uncertainty as the United States. As a result, diplomacy with North Korea is not necessarily a rigged game in which Kim Jong Un is pursuing an exceptionally clever strategy. Both sides are playing the game partially blindfolded and a satisfactory, if not ideal, outcome that includes North Korea’s denuclearization in some form should not be discounted.
Cognitive bias #2: Attributing the current situation to a single, fixed intent
The second cognitive bias is the belief that North Korean leaders have made and stuck to a single, fixed choice, instead of having kept as many options available (hedging) or having made disparate decisions at multiple inflection points throughout the history of the U.S.-North Korea nuclear conflict.
Korea watchers generally believe that the current crisis reflects North Korea’s unwavering desire to obtain nuclear weapons. However, no one will know what happened with all previous nuclear agreements with North Korea until archives on both sides are open to researchers. Counterfactuals are impossible to prove, and no one can be sure what would have happened if the United States and North Korea had made different choices at different junctures in the nuclear conflict. Yet, the fact that the complex and never-ending debate over how and why the Agreed Framework and later agreements failed exists suggests that North Korean decision-making has been far more complicated than understood in the United States.
The assertion, then, that Kim Jong Un will never give up his nuclear weapons program and will inevitably cheat on any agreement is flawed, as it is not clear that North Korea has always had a single fixed position on nuclear weapons. With the right incentives and disincentives, the United States might be able to sway Kim’s decision-making.
A counterargument could be made that Kim Jong Un is coldly rational and does hold a single, fixed position because he views nuclear weapons as the key to his survival, especially after witnessing the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who completely gave up his nuclear weapons program, only to be killed in 2011 in a rebellion protected by a Western no-fly zone. Yet, if Kim were truly rational and faced with “the existential choice between survival and nuclear status,” as noted by Scott Snyder, due to internal and external pressure of varying nature, then a satisfactory level of denuclearization, by logic, should not be discounted.
Cognitive bias #3: Past patterns must continue
The final cognitive bias is the tendency to conclude that past failures with North Korea mean that current diplomacy is also unlikely to lead to a satisfactory outcome, even though a number of factors are different this time.
To begin with, leader-to-leader diplomacy has never been tried. Conventionally, diplomats lay the groundwork, prepare the details, and then have top leaders meet and sign relevant documents at a summit. But the North Korean political system is uniquely centralized and personalized, meaning that only the top leader can exercise true flexibility on policy issues. Kim Jong Un likely is also cautious about airing his true intentions because even the most brutal dictator has to consider the effects of his words and actions on domestic legitimacy, particularly among elites. Hence, leader-to-leader diplomacy might be the only way to gauge Kim’s inner thinking and reach a solution.
In terms of regime security, Kim Jong Un is facing far more pressure compared to his predecessors. Kim would like to remain in power for decades, perhaps for more than half a century. Yet, he is facing rapid marketization of the North Korean economy and increased information flow within the country that he has managed to co-opt, but not halt. This comes at a time when an unprecedented level of sanctions has hurt Pyongyang (despite some recent signs that the Chinese might be loosening their grip). In addition, the North Koreans seem to fear that the Trump administration might launch a military strike, particularly in light of talk about a “bloody nose” strike.
At the elite level, Kim and his generation are more aware of the outside world compared to their predecessors. North Korea’s first generation of leadership under Kim Il Sung consisted of revolutionaries who believed they were on the winning side of the Korean conflict. The second generation under Kim Jong Il was indoctrinated in socialism but saw the socialist world collapse, along with its model of development. They did not have the right education and skills to adapt North Korea to changing circumstances. The current generation under Kim Jong Un was educated in Western schools and is the most aware when it comes to the West. This generation likely is the most willing to offer nuclear weapons as bargaining chips for aid and Western technology that might be necessary to sustain the regime for decades.
In terms of alliance policy coordination, this is the first time the United States and South Korea are truly in lockstep on North Korea. During the 1994 crisis, Bill Clinton clashed with South Korea’s hardline president, Kim Young-sam. Clinton was briefly in sync with the dovish Kim Dae-jung administration from 1998, but South Korea’s progressive governments and the Bush administration clashed from 2001, while there was minimal diplomatic opening under Barack Obama, Lee Myung-bak, and Park Geun-hye. Unlike previous diplomatic phases, U.S. and South Korean leaders are coordinating well.
Take all precautions, but be on the lookout for creative possibilities
The United States and South Korea should not embrace North Korea with open arms or buy everything that Kim Jong Un is trying to sell. The Trump administration should take all precautions in negotiations that might follow the summit with Kim. Even if a deal emerges, it could be an imperfect one with much ambiguity. Nevertheless, diplomats and Korea watchers should be open to creative diplomatic possibilities, lest they fail to be noticed due to excessive pessimism.