By Glenn Verasco | Thailand
As you may know already, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has expressed interest in meeting with President Trump, and has already met with South Korean president Moon Jae-In to begin brokering a peace deal to formally end the Korean War, eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons stockpile, and attempt to unite the peninsula as one Korea. The two Korean leaders met at the DMZ line and engaged in a symbolic sequence of gestures to signify the progress being made to the entire world. Un also met with newly-confirmed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a few weeks earlier.
If everything works out (and that is a gargantuan if), we could be looking at the most important world peace event since the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Threats of nuclear apocalypse could subside for the foreseeable future, and an ensuing economic boom in North Korea could have wonderful effects for the North Korean people and markets throughout the world. Of course, a step towards freedom and prosperity for the prisoners of the North Korean concentration camp (i.e. everyone who lives there) would be the greatest victory of all.
This brings me to a point that I have not seen raised much yet: while it can be argued that President Trump deserves heaps of credit and maybe even a share of the Nobel Peace Prize should real advancement towards peace be achieved, the real reason North Korea is ready to open up to the world is the free market itself.
Before I make the case for crediting capitalism, I’ll share my thoughts on Trump’s role in getting the wheels rolling in Korea.
I think Trump’s brash and unorthodox tone prevalent at his rallies and on his Twitter feed is extremely effective in creating international peace. Comedian and impressionist Dana Carvey burlesqued President Obama and President Trump in order to show why Trump’s method might be working where Obama’s failed:
Regardless of whether or not Trump’s technique is calculated cunning or accidental impulsivity, I think there is logic behind the notion that speaking loudly and carrying a big stick is effective diplomacy when dealing with dictators like Kim Jong Un.
Years ago, I heard a clip of Adam Carolla ranting about the right way to deal with dictators and terrorist groups in the Middle East. While some may dismiss Carolla as a simple layman who’s grown a bit too big for his britches, I think he has wisdom and common sense on his side. Carolla believes that playing nice is the wrong way to go. Instead of being patient and measured a la Obama, Carolla says letting the US’s enemies (particularly those who are more bullying than reasonable) know that we are capable of military destruction unlike any nation in world history is the best way to great through to them.
Carolla recently had General Michael Hayden as a guest on his podcast and asked for his opinion on the current situation in Korea. While Carolla reiterated his own view, Hayden, predictably, renounced Trump’s tweets and rhetoric, but credited the administration’s military demonstrations and sanctions for producing hopeful results.
On Twitter, Ian Bremmer, president of political consulting firm Eurasia Group, and possibly the most perfect caricature of a globalist in a derogatory, populist-envisioned sense, echoed Hayden’s analysis by noting that the Trump team persuaded China to actually enforce sanctions against North Korea:
We don’t know if Trump threats of war on N Korea forced them to the table. Maybe.
We do know Trump Admin pressure and link to broader US-China relationship got Beijing to stiffen (and enforce) sanctions & support UNSC process. That changed the ballgame.
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) April 28, 2018
My problem with Hayden and Bremmer’s takes is that sanctions generally do not accomplish their goals. To exemplify this, sanctions have not done much to make progress in Cuba, Russia, Iran, or North Korea up until now. How could it make sense that a new set of sanctions is suddenly succeeding after decades of sanctions have failed? As Oxford research fellow and international relations expert Professor Adam Roberts says, “There are very few cases where you can definitely identify sanctions as having had a success, except sometimes in combination with other factors.” In other words, even on the rare occasions where sanctions appear to lead to change, correlation does not equal causation.
The last thing I’ll say before making my case for the free market is that Barack Obama should not be blamed entirely for missing out on an opportunity to make progress with Kim Jong Un if it existed while he was in office. Unlike the Republican congress under Trump’s thumb, GOP lawmakers would have pitched a hissy fit of epic proportions had Obama acted as Trump is acting now. They would have accused Obama of cozying up to dictators and obstructed any positive steps his administration may have liked to take. Now neutered by Trump, the GOP congress has shed their phony principles and does as their master commands.
I think talking to dictators is smart and ethical, whether via tweets or backchannels. The world is a complicated place, and government is inherently violent. If we kill all the sinners, we’ll all wind up dead, so making the best of a bad situation is the right way to go. It’s better to see oppressed people freed than oppressors hanged. This manner of foreign policy should be accepted across party lines.
There is also a case to be made that Trump’s apparent role in negotiations with North Korea are, like most economic sanctions, purely coincidental. Behind the optical illusions of rhetoric and diplomacy, the gears of innovation and production continue to turn. How one deals with a tribe that has invented the spear matters less than the fact the spear is now in play. Tariffs on raw materials do not matter if the raw materials aren’t there. Individuals and industries make the world more inhabitable for mankind, and governments must adapt or be left behind.
Several quasi-free-market factors could be the real hero on the Korean Peninsula. The first is that the isolated, centrally-planned economic model of North Korea is unsustainable. In fact, it’s miraculous that misery and starvation levels in the country aren’t higher. In the market of economic systems, the best options are in the laissez-faire-leaning aisle. Kim Jong Un might be making a choice to eschew some of his responsibilities and at the same time bring greater prosperity to North Korea and an easier life for himself. With international investors like McDonald’s and 711 on the menu, Un would probably regret resisting the temptation of effortless access forever.
If North Korea opens up, an economic boom like no other will almost certainly take place. As the image below demonstrates, North Korea has immense potential for economic development:
The GDP numbers Un could tout to the world and his people would make him look like an enormous success. Juxtapose being remembered as the man who liberated North Korea with being written into the history books as an evil tyrant who starved his people, and then think about which role you’d rather play.
The World Wide Web is another free market wonder that may be forcing Kim Jong Un’s hand. At the moment, press and internet freedom in North Korea is abysmal. It’s hard to imagine living in a world with such limited flow of information.
But the internet has proven to be something of a tyranny deterrent. My guess is that the Kim Jong Un regime will have a difficult time suppressing the information superhighway for much longer. Whether accomplished internally or via interventions from the outside, more and more North Koreans will wind up online. This is largely due to the forces of the free market, which have decided that the internet shall be the economic foundation of nearly all things.
The more access North Koreans have to the internet, the harder it will be for Un to keep his propaganda intact. Instead of waiting for things to boil over, easing into less-restrictive access to information is probably the better option.
Obviously, I do not know what is going to happen in Korea, nor do I know if or why anything is taking place right now. These are theories based on very limited knowledge of the world.
My advice to all is to remain skeptical of everything you hear and to hope for the best. North Korea may not open up to the rest of the world in any of our lifetimes. But if it does, it could be the event that restores optimism to the world.