North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in a combination photo with US President Donald Trump. Photos: KCNA via Reuters

American officials and commentators often say it will be “suicide” if Kim Jong Un tries something. That something is usually unclear but at the rate Kim is launching missiles he appears to think he’s got plenty of leeway before he does something suicidal.

The North Koreans wouldn’t be the first to miscalculate what suicidal is.

It was suicidal for the Japanese to attack the Americans and British in 1941, in retrospect, at least. But at the time, it seemed like a reasonable idea.

It was suicidal for Hitler to attack Russia, especially when over half the German invasion force’s transport was horse-drawn. But at the time it didn’t seem so.

The United States invading Iraq without a plan for what to do once Baghdad was captured? It might not have been suicidal, but was at least the equivalent of jumping off a three-story building onto an asphalt parking lot, repeatedly.

So consider things from Kim’s perspective as he looks over the last 30 years. No matter what he and his father and grandfather have done they’ve never been painfully punished.

So consider things from Kim’s perspective as he looks over the last 30 years. No matter what he and his father and grandfather did they’ve never been painfully punished.

At various times, the Americans, Japanese, South Koreans and others have given the Kim’s food, money, oil, and atomic reactors – all in exchange for a promise to talk or behave better. Keeping the promises was optional.

And when the Kim regime has acted out – blowing up the South Korean cabinet in Rangoon, torpedoing a South Korean Navy ship, kidnapping Japanese citizens, launching missiles, building and testing nuclear weapons, poisoning a half-brother in broad daylight in a crowded airport terminal?

Why … nothing much happened.

After the South Korean vessel was sunk the Americans even pressured Seoul to do nothing. And China helpfully insisted at the UN that it was unclear who fired the torpedo.

China – the one country that can economically “turn off” North Korea – has kept the Kim’s afloat, protected them politically, and helped with their nuclear and missile programs.

This continues and includes pressuring South Korea over its THAAD missile defense system and strong-arming South Korean companies operating in China. But it’s not just Beijing.

The Kim regime maintains a gulag that a Korean Solzhenitsyn will someday write about. Yet 164 nations have diplomatic relations with North Korea.

The Kim regime maintains a gulag that a Korean Solzhenitsyn will someday write about. Yet 164 nations have diplomatic relations with North Korea.

And a number of them accept North Korean “forced” labor and allow the regime’s licit and illicit money making operations to continue.

The United States has had a curious approach towards North Korea. It maintains military forces on the peninsular and is committed to defending South Korea – while often displaying naivety and incompetence on the diplomatic front.

When the North’s nuclear program gathered speed in the early 1990’s, Jimmy Carter dropped by and declared Kim Il Sung a “good man who you can do business with.” (He added that an excellent harvest is coming – as “an old peanut farmer” knows, which was shortly before famine killed a million or two North Koreans.)

This writer was in the audience at the US Embassy in Tokyo in 1994 when Mr. Carter came back after reprising Neville Chamberlain’s role in Pyongyang. Jimmy Carter is still around, recently calling for talking things out with North Korea.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright dropped by in 2000 and hobnobbed – double handshake and beaming smiles – with Kim Jong Il. To no avail.

And the State Department’s point man on North Korea, Christopher Hill, was repeatedly bamboozled by North Korean negotiators during the mid-2000’s. He also shut down US officials calling for a harsh approach to North Korea – just when financial sanctions were biting.

The jury is still out on the Trump Administration. But North Korea returns a soon-to-die American student, threatens Guam, and fires in-your-face missiles, including over Japanese territory. And it faces nothing more than angry Tweets and “this time we mean it…really we do” sanctions from the United Nations.

Looking at all this from Kim’s perspective, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have progressed nicely over the years despite whatever punishment and sanctions the United States and the United Nations threw at it.

Kim just might think that short of dropping a missile into Washington, DC, there’s not much the Americans will do. And perhaps some distance will eventually appear between South Korea and the United States.

At that point, attacking southwards and reunifying the peninsula may not seem suicidal to Kim – if it does even now.

Given this history, maybe the US can’t change Kim’s mind. But it might change China’s mind about what is suicidal and what isn’t for the Kim family regime. And they can pass the message along to their ally in Pyongyang.

What to tell Beijing? In short, once Americans (or their allies) start dying because of North Korea, it will not be business as usual between the United States and China.

China has a choice now, rein in North Korea or face a complete severing of US economic and financial ties once the shooting starts. (Suspending the Bank of China from the global US dollar system for six months will give a nice sense of things.)

And the Chinese Communist Party elite’s properties and bank accounts in the US will be frozen, and family members’ green cards revoked.

The communist party’s main claim to rule over 1.3 billion Chinese is the economic progress made once it stopped brutalizing its citizens. Interrupt the economy and the party is in trouble.

Continuing to protect the Kim regime may not be suicidal for China’s ruling class, but the Americans can make it the equivalent of jumping off a six-story building – without cushions in the parking lot.

Then, China might finally get serious about North Korea.

Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with more than 20 years' experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a US diplomat, business executive, and US Marine Corps officer.

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