Soft power

Image source: VCG via Getty Images


We all know that countries aren’t really created equal. Yes, the principle of sovereignty, the practice of diplomacy, and the formats of most international institutions uphold the idea that countries are equal partners and that each one has an equal say in the running of the world. But it shouldn’t be too much of a controversy to state that some countries are more powerful than others. Even the UN recognizes this, with its Security Council that neatly aligns with the victorious powers of World War II.

What makes these countries more powerful than others? Their militaries, of course. Big armies and scary technology have been used throughout history to coerce weaker countries into doing what the strong country wants. When backed up by a smoothly functioning political system and bureaucracy, the power imbalance can be steep. Followers of the “realist” school of international relations say that this hard power is all that really matters: international relations is a contest for supremacy, and barring an unexpected event like a stupid political decision, the strong countries win and boss around everyone else.

This is basically true, but it would be inaccurate to just boil international relations down to that. (Otherwise, small, weak countries would have no chance.) Soft power plays a role as well. This concept, pioneered by the Harvard professor and former American defense official Joseph Nye, emphasizes other aspects of international power: culture, values and foreign policies. They may not make you tremble like nuclear weapons or aircraft carriers do, but subtly and over a long time, they are effective too.

“Liberals” and “constructivists,” the other factions in the academic world of international relations, have always emphasized the importance of values. If a country is seen as sharing your values, you’ll be more likely to ally with them or at least rely on them as a partner. If a country is not seen as sharing your values, the fear and suspicion that underlies much of diplomacy is only increased. Similarly, the way countries behave towards each other influences perceptions, even among bystander countries. A country with a track record of bullying, unpredictability and/or unreliability will find its diplomatic efforts stymied compared to one known for promoting peace, human rights and fair play.

I find culture to be the most fascinating aspect of this, since it’s such a slippery subject — hard to quantify, hard to evaluate, it’s usually overlooked or dismissed as a relevant factor in the cold hard world of international relations. But I think it subtly affects IR too. (This is one reason this blog occasionally covers cultural topics in addition to more newsworthy stuff.) For the most part, countries are drawn to those that share their culture, or have a similar one. History is littered with examples of alliances forged through shared cultural understanding: Imperial Germany’s interests may have lain with an alliance with powerful, influential Russia, but it ended up choosing Austria-Hungary mostly because of a shared Germanic culture and disdain for Russia’s Slavic culture. America and Britain may have important shared interests, but their alliance is cemented by a shared culture, language and history. The Commonwealth, Britain’s post-imperial club, mostly runs on these factors.

In the long run, the sense of a “superior” culture worth emulating accords certain countries a special status and deference from those who might be their equals or superiors politically. For most of ancient history, Greece was a mess politically speaking, but its sophisticated culture earned it a cachet from its neighbors and respect from its stronger adversaries, Persia and Rome. China commanded similar awe and emulation (although in that case it was helped by its size, strength, and resources). In general, religion is a particularly strong glue; the Arabs clashed numerous times with their neighbors, but the wide appeal of Islam and the prevalence of Arabic elevates them above their sometimes chaotic political situation.

The most subtle, underappreciated form of soft power might be plain and simple recognition. Let’s face it: not all countries are equally well-known, either. Guinea-Bissau is not as familiar as Mexico. Mozambique probably sounds like a made-up country to most of the world, but almost everyone has heard of China. Fame gives European countries in particular extra clout; Britain, France and Germany are among the most well-known countries in the world, and it’s very common for members of the global elite to at least visit them. Countries of similar size elsewhere, like the Congo, Iran or the Philippines, don’t get as much attention, which surely has an effect on the way they are treated.

When it comes to which country commands the most soft power, the question is hardly in dispute: America rules the roost. It may be proud of its enormous hard power, but soft power is the other tool in its arsenal. America’s political and economic systems are widely used models. It attracts lots of immigrants, increasingly from all over the world. Its universities are top-of-the-line. The globe is in thrall to American pop culture: look at how familiar American superheroes, American rappers, and American sitcoms are from the rich West to poor Africa. Thanks in part to the prevalence of English, even relatively mundane happenings in America attract international attention. It is true that American foreign policy doesn’t always command respect — George Bush’s cowboy attitude and dumb decision to invade Iraq made it rued around the world, and as Joseph Nye himself points out, America’s current president has done a lot to remind everyone of America’s negative qualities like vanity, ignorance and bullying bluntness. But it is famous, and its values and culture are broadly attractive.

The West in general commands a lot of soft power. Thanks to European imperialism, the world as a whole has been shaped in the Western image, and it would be nearly impossible to teach recent world history without discussing the West in some way. Europe is still the world’s biggest tourist draw. Its lingering historical prestige, combined with its present-day combination of cozy antique villages and a comfortable modern lifestyle sustained by generous welfare, go a long way in masking its long-term decline as an international player. Thanks in no small part to their colonialism, Britain and France are more familiar to many countries than their own neighborhoods. Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Canada have become immigrant magnets despite their light hard power credentials.

The other soft power titan? Japan. With a constitutional restriction on its hard power projection capability, Japan has pretty much banked on soft power to increase its clout. It has worked very well: Japanese technology is used all over the world, Japanese culture is among the most familiar outside of the West, tourism is booming, and Japanese characters from Pokemon to Gundam are the strongest rivals to America’s pantheon of pop culture icons. Although it is now a bit passe, in previous eras Japan was widely admired for modernizing rapidly along Western models while keeping its culture intact. While all this is important, Japan’s soft power is hobbled somewhat by various, mostly minor issues that regularly appear in the news (suicides, creepy fetishes, overwork, etc.), its hostility to immigrants and foreigners in general, and its terrible reputation among its immediate neighbors.

Probably the most discussed topic in soft power conversations these days — as in so many foreign policy discussions — is China. As mentioned earlier, China has historically been a soft power giant, exporting everything from philosophy to urban planning to its neighbors. But lately, its image has suffered somewhat, aside from die-hard Communists in the Maoist era. It is as often associated with rampant greed and bossing around its neighbors as it is with anything positive. For a long time, China didn’t really care, but beginning in the ’90s Nye’s theory started circulating in Chinese intellectual circles. Eager as always to compete with America and cultivate an image as a peaceful power, China has begun to aggressively promote its soft power. Confucius Institutes all over the world teach Chinese language and handicrafts; Chinese cultural performances are heavily marketed; the Chinese New Year is celebrated overseas; even Confucius (Master Kong), once demonized by the Communists, has been rehabilitated and rebranded as an icon of a gentle, wise China.

These campaigns are only a little over a decade old, so their efficacy is probably too soon to judge. Whatever their merits, China already has a great deal of soft power on account of its fame and attributes like dim sum, taiji, and Jackie Chan. But China’s efforts seem doomed to fail, or at least disappoint, for 2 reasons: 1, they’re state-led, while the vibrancy and appeal of, say, Japan’s pop culture is organic; and 2, it is unclear whether an appreciation for a country’s culture will necessarily lead to an endorsement of that country’s values and foreign policy — which is the point of all of this. Plenty of people enjoy The Big Bang Theory and KFC while railing about American imperialism.

Other countries also wield outsized clout thanks to their soft power. South Korea’s movies, pop groups and TV dramas have won it many fans throughout Asia. India’s movies, religious practices, and — to a lesser extent — music have gone a long way in giving it a more benign image than China and ameliorating negative impressions of India abroad. Even countries like Nigerian and Turkey, who are more often thought of as places to emigrate from, have acquired a bit of a “cool” status thanks to their pop cultures and vibrant societies. These countries would do well to encourage their creative industries to cash in on their burgeoning cachets.

So what, say the realists. Why does any of this matter? At the end of the day, it’s hard power — military might, diplomatic skill, and cold, hard cash — that settles things. Why does it matter that Russia (for example) has a dearth of soft power? If it wants to, it can step in and smoosh its neighbors. Would a fondness for French wine make one less willing to resist a French invasion? Would cute Japanese mascot characters make one more likely to surrender in a trade dispute?

Probably not. Hard power continues to be the most important element of international relations. But I think that in the day-to-day conduct of international affairs, when countries aren’t always at each other’s throats, soft power does play an important role. What academics call “normative biases” do affect thinking and decision-making. Even if governments use a more rational calculus of their interests, their citizens are affected by soft power, and governments usually reflect the popular will. American pop culture saturation makes it hard to conceive of the Philippines actually breaking its alliance with the US. Peaceful images like meditating sadhus and damsels warbling love songs make it hard for anyone but Pakistanis to think of India as a truculent power. Cultural and media exposure have created a bond between North America, South Korea, Japan and Europe that does much to reinforce their formal alliances. And frankly, soft power makes it more likely for people to care about other countries. Sometimes, simple awareness makes a lot of difference.

NOTE: There seems to be some disagreement whether economic power counts as “hard” or “soft.” On one hand, money is definitely powerful, and a state of economic dependence can be as crippling as military occupation. On the other hand, “hardness” is often equated with force or the threat of using force, while money is seen as a way to persuade rather than coerce. The best answer seems to be that it depends on how economic power is used, as this article argues.



China Dragon Claw

Image source: Financial Times


China has prompted a great deal of hand-wringing and anxiety in the rest of the world for centuries, thanks to its massive population and alien culture. Napoleon deemed it a “sleeping giant” and urged Westerners to let it be. Chinese immigration to the West later in the 1800s produced the notion of a vague “Yellow Peril” that would swamp and ruin the West somehow. This merged in the 1900s with the “Red Peril” of Communism when Communists took over China. Southeast Asians have long had an uneasy and mostly unhappy relationship with China, and Chinese immigrant communities there haven’t always integrated well, even centuries later. Japan’s invasions and subjugation of China were partly intended to suppress its economic and military potential. All kinds of little things, from the air of superiority Chinese maintained even under foreign occupation to the bluntness and constant tone shifts of Chinese, have reinforced the idea of China as a threat.

And yet, China has also held an allure at the same time. Mostly, this is economic: it has always been the world’s biggest market, and combined with its well-organized administration and its people’s business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit, this has made it almost irresistible for foreign businessmen. Partly, it’s sentimental: there is genuine admiration for a culture that built the Great Wall, administered a merit-based civil service, and invented mapo doufu. Richard Nixon asked his ambassador to Taiwan to “just stop and think of what could happen if anybody with a decent system of government got control of that main land [China]… you put 800 million Chinese to work under a decent system and they will be the leaders of the world.” Naturally, this is part of what led him to “open up” China to the outside world in 1972; he wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1967 that “we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors…. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.”

China’s relationship with the outside world has thus been defined by simultaneous anxiety and hope, as my series on its foreign relations has shown. But lately, especially since Xi Jinping took over as China’s dictator in 2012, foreign feelings on China have leaned noticeably toward anxiety. Partly, this is because of the international climate: America and Britain are in disarray over their own stupid political decisions, the EU is struggling to stay united and harmonious, Russia has gone rogue and rising powers like Brazil and India are still mostly preoccupied with their own development and their immediate neighborhoods. It has provided an environment ripe for Chinese influence.

But China has done its part to appear as a threat. It is relentlessly authoritarian, maybe even totalitarian: since Xi took power, surveillance and censorship have tightened, the grounds for jailing political dissidents have widened, and any mass movement is controlled and monitored by the Party or shut down. To the alarm of freedom-lovers everywhere, Xi discarded term limits last month, completing a process of consolidating his own position as China’s unchallenged dictator. After the Beijing Olympics and global financial crisis in 2008, China went through a period of smugness and assertiveness overseas; even though this mostly amounted to backing up its friend, North Korea, at the UN when it torpedoed a South Korean ship and more aggressive defense of its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, it was clear to many foreigners that China felt confident in its new wealth and strength and increasingly willing to make itself felt on the international stage.

Xi has pushed China toward a more expansive role abroad too. Some international security analysts see China as trying to make itself the regional hegemon of East Asia and ultimately shove America out of the region; whether or not that’s true, it has militarized the South China Sea, made vague threats against Taiwan, provoked a border stand-off with India, bickered with Japan over the Senkaku Islands and Japan’s attempt to beef up its military, and bullied South Korea with a boycott. It has propped up the North Korean dictatorship in the face of international sanctions and implicitly encourages human rights abuses in countries like Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Sudan through its no-strings-attached support. Laos and Cambodia have become Chinese satellites thanks to the amount of Chinese investment there; the “Belt and Road Initiative” envisions Chinese infrastructure linking China with Europe, and has already led to massive Chinese investments and construction in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. At his big speech to the Party Congress last year, Xi spent a lot of time bragging about China’s development model and encouraged other countries to adopt it.

At the moment, trade is the biggest bone of contention. Salivation over China’s giant, juicy market recommenced pretty quickly after Deng Xiaoping’s opening of the Chinese economy in the late ’70s. Beyond appeasing drooling businessmen, governments had political justifications for trading with China: more trade with the outside world meant more interaction with it, which would mean subordination to more powerful countries and exposure to their superior models of government and economics. Japan’s experience after World War II was the model: it grew back into a Great Power and seemed like it would grow into an economic superpower. It delivered prosperity to its people without being an imperialist scourge and developed cool cars and technology the whole world used. The similar development stories of the “Asian Tigers” (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) and the rapid collapse of the Communist Bloc after Mikhail Gorbachyov loosened political controls in the ’80s seemed to justify the strategy even more.

Although history hasn’t somehow ended, so far it seems that foreign expectations were wrong. Yes, China has become an economic powerhouse, the primary source of low-end manufacturing and the second-biggest consumer market (it’s still not as rich as America). Yes, China is now much more open than before and exports students and tourists more than any other country. But it’s come at a cost to foreign business. The Party has been careful to protect its state-owned enterprises and keep huge sectors of the Chinese economy under their control. Foreigners may have been willing to share their technological expertise with China when it was a struggling rival to the Soviet Union, but it is now a competitor to the West and outright steals intellectual property from foreign businesses, either through joint ventures in the country or by hacking overseas. There are export restraints and health-and-safety measures that stifle agricultural imports. Technology is the most valuable sector now, but the Giants of Silicon Valley are barred from the Chinese market. Meanwhile, the West’s manufacturing sector has been gutted.

China’s economic expansion has awakened fears of a new wave of imperialism from an unfamiliar source. Chinese demand is instrumental in keeping Latino economies afloat. China is now the largest player in Africa and builds everything from roads and railways to soccer stadiums and palaces. Sri Lanka is deep in debt thanks to a Chinese-built port it couldn’t quite afford. Myanmar reconciled with the West due to fears that it was becoming a Chinese satellite. The Philippines dropped its objections to Chinese naval activity in its waters in the hopes of attracting Chinese investment. Even Western places like the Balkans and Australia are being reshaped by Chinese intervention.

Pundits on China have always been split into hawks who fear China and urge toughness and suspicion and doves who are enamored with it and downplay the problems. These days the hawks are ascendant. China-bashing wins votes in America and Japan and popular support in Vietnam. America is hitting China with tariffs, threats and patrols in the South China Sea; Australia is undergoing a sweep of politicians under Chinese influence. Murmurs about World War III are becoming regular. Talk of China democratizing or even loosening up has basically died out. The businessmen and consultants who have traditionally urged for a cozy relationship with China have become gloomy and pessimistic.

But I believe that Nixon’s logic still holds. China is simply too powerful, important and large to ignore or shun. The genie can’t be put back in the bottle; the giant can’t be put back to sleep. The world has to cope. Relentlessly bashing China or trying to isolate it would be unwise or even disastrous. It is a proud, prickly country with a strong sense of entitlement and nationalism. Past humiliations have made it ultra-sensitive to anything resembling mistreatment. As the linchpin of East Asia, a war with it would devastate arguably the world’s most important region, set back decades of economic progress and raise unpleasant possibilities like a mass cyberattack or nuclear pulverization.

Besides, China still has much to offer the world. For all their misgivings and anxieties, developing countries mostly look up to China. The West probably doesn’t appreciate how well its development model has worked. Impoverished African countries, long overlooked by the West and Japan for their human rights abuses, are attracting desperately needed investment that for the most part actually helps. If it lives up to the hype, the Belt and Road Initiative could actually help bind Asia, the world’s biggest continent, together and encourage more trade and transit between its countries. In recent years China has pioneered technological innovation and is pouring investment into R&D in burgeoning fields like renewable energy and artificial intelligence. Even with all the hassles, its consumer market is still enormous. And expecting the Party to pursue policies that would weaken its own hold on power is a little unrealistic.

That being said, I wouldn’t classify myself as a China “dove” either. Chinese leaders tend to have an unsentimental view of the world and will continue pushing if external forces are pliant enough. They have already changed their tune in the past decade: while in the ’00s they emphasized China’s peaceful rise and its lack of interest in interfering overseas, they are now cockier, more involved and openly ambitious. China’s so-called “sharp power” (its increasing ability to pressure foreigners peacefully but aggressively) is worrying and could get sharper. Foreign leaders, especially in the West, will have to stand up for their own principles and make sure the Chinese stand by theirs. Shenanigans like China’s trade violations that rankle a lot of countries would make good opportunities for united fronts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a pan-Pacific grouping of East Asian, Oceanian and American countries focused on lowering trade barriers). Bullying over issues like the Dalai Lama and Taiwan should be resisted. During the Cold War, the “containment” policy of limiting Soviet influence ultimately worked; although outright containment would be inappropriate for a country as integral as China, America, Japan, India, Vietnam, the EU and Australia would do well to coordinate efforts to counter its influence and offer small countries alternatives.

I am not altogether hopeful that this strategy will be adopted. Great Powers don’t like to cede influence willingly, and there will have to be voluntary cession of power and influence to accommodate China peacefully. “Accommodate China while remaining firm on our core interests” isn’t going to pump voters up. Non-Western countries are too diverse and conflicted about China for the West to ally with without a lot of friction, and it might be too much. But navigating a middle course between caving in and lashing out is the most prudent way for the world to cope with China. Look at East Asia, which has the most experience with it: countries like South Korea and Singapore have been careful to be friendly with China without alienating America or ceding their sovereignty. Even Vietnam, traditionally very suspicious of its neighbor, has been careful not to be too confrontational. The world would do well to listen to Master Kong, who declared that “the superior man cultivates a friendly harmony without being weak.”


Mushroom cloud

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Events in Korea over the past year have set East Asia, and the whole world, on edge. North Korea has tested nuclear weapons. America, in league with China, has responded with a crippling sanction campaign. Undeterred, North Korea continues to fire missiles and now claims to have one that can reach America’s very faraway east coast. America has toyed with the prospect of a military strike.

To be fair, this situation should be familiar. Ever since the Koreas were divided by occupying Soviet and American armies in 1945, North Korea has been antagonistic. It tried to conquer South Korea in 1950 and almost succeeded. In the decades since, it has tried to assassinate a South Korean dictator, kidnapped Japanese and South Korean civilians, blown up a South Korean plane, torpedoed a South Korean ship, and shelled a South Korean island near the border. Since the ’90s, it has had a nuclear program; since 2006, it has had nuclear bombs. It has constantly issued overblown, melodramatic threats against its neighbor and its other 2 enemies, Japan and America. America usually takes a hard line and has imposed international sanctions against North Korea since 2006.

But even against this background of threats and hostility, the past year has been an escalation. Gim Jeong’eun, the North’s dictator, has ramped up the pace of his nuclear testing, with 3 since he took power in 2011 and more than 80 missile tests. (His predecessors had 2 and 31, respectively.) Chinese participation is significant because it is supposed to be the North’s ally and has resisted harsh measures against it at the UN before; most Northern exports have now been cut off completely. Donald Trump, America’s blowhard president, has adopted Gim’s hyperbole by threatening “fire and fury” and mulling an attack to give the North a “bloody nose.”

The stakes are high, and it should be obvious, but I’ll explain anyway just in case. Both North Korea and America have nukes, which could kill millions of people. Seoul, a giant city with over 10 million people, is near the border and could get pounded by Northern artillery fire. American troops are stationed in the South and would come to its defense, since it’s a treaty ally. China might intervene, since although it opposes the North’s nuclear antics, it still prefers its regime to the American-backed one in Seoul. South Korea is one of Asia’s economic hotspots and a technological hub for the whole world; a Second Korean War would have a global economic impact.

These considerations should rule out a military strike for any but the most insane, fanatical hawks. North Korea may be an obnoxious, untrustworthy, aggressive tyranny, but conditions must REALLY be intolerable before another Korean War is willingly unleashed. (The first one killed around 5 million people, more than almost any other war since World War II.) America itself would likely suffer consequences since it’s now within range (theoretically) of the North’s missiles. And talk of a “bloody nose” attack is reckless; how many people give up and just slink away when they’re punched in the face?

Given these conditions, previous presidents have resorted to a policy of sanctions and focusing on other problems, quietly hoping that something gives in the North and the regime collapses (or at least acts peacefully). Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor, called this “strategic patience.” It frustrated a lot of his opponents, especially hawks, who pointed to it as yet another example of Obama’s cowardice and passivity — but it’s the better strategy.

Still, it’s hard to argue that the policy worked. Gim Jeong’eun has kept testing weapons and amassing an arsenal of as many as 60 bombs. The North’s propagandists talked about turning Seoul into a “sea of fire” and compared Obama to a monkey. Trump’s patience has clearly run out — as have many other Americans (and Japanese).

But… what can he do?

In the ’90s and early ’00s, the South tried to approach the North with what came to be known as the “sunshine policy,” offering business ventures, badly needed food aid, and high-level talks. America was always skeptical that the North was just gaming the South for emergency supplies and money (thanks to its own dysfunctional economy) and never intended to abandon its nuclear dream. Sure enough, when the North tested its first nuke in 2006, the policy unraveled, and it is now spoken of mainly with scorn.

Nevertheless, I think it’s time to revisit the policy. North Korea feels isolated and insecure; with a subsistence-level economy, no real allies, and an enemy known to overthrow dictators, it has good reason to. Gim is probably confident that no country would dare attack him with the prospect of nuclear retaliation dangling overhead, and again, he has good reason to be. North Koreans are underfed and lack the military technology and numbers of their neighbors. A nuclear deterrent is their best hope.

Given the forces arrayed against it — South Korea, Japan, and America — is it plausible that the North would launch an attack against them? Some worry about this, and it’s still a possibility, but it rests on the presumption that Gim Jeong’eun is some kind of madman who’s drunk on his own propaganda and completely oblivious to the outside world. I don’t buy into this theory — it is much more likely that he’s just acting that way to rattle his adversaries and impress (or intimidate) his own people. Why hasn’t North Korea started a war yet? It started the first one because it thought it had a chance to conquer the South. That chance is nonexistent now. South Korea alone is strong enough to beat the North at this point, leading some analysts to wonder if the alliance with America even makes sense anymore.

Therefore, I think the best strategy now is to hold high-level talks with North Korea, including a summit if possible, and drop the sanctions. Given the current balance of power, it is America in reality that is most threatening to Korean security. An American attack is the most likely flashpoint that would start another war. North (and South) Korea needs an assurance that America won’t start anything and has peaceful intentions.

In fact, I would argue that foreigners should go even further and try to trade with North Korea and loosen the barriers that isolate it. This won’t be easy, given Northern paranoia at subversion and contamination by liberal thought and capitalism, but it’s worth seeing how far it can go. The model should be the opening of China in the ’70s: even though China had been seen by America and its allies as a fanatical, ideological, implacable enemy, it turned out to be willing to reach an understanding and eventually to trade and open up to the outside world. With a growing North Korean middle class and a leader who might be more familiar with the world outside his borders, there might be an opportunity here too.

It’s not a perfect strategy. But none are. North Korea has been called “the land of lousy options.” America and its allies (especially Japan) are committed to halting nuclear proliferation, meaning keeping more countries from getting nukes. Their current strategy hinges on making North Korea give them up. But how would that work? Why would North Korea give up something it has worked so hard on for so long and at such a price? Iraq and Libya did it and were convulsed by invasion and civil war. Iran (apparently) has done it and Trump is talking about cracking down some more because the deal wasn’t harsh enough. Nukes are almost all North Korea has. There is a risk that South Korea and Japan would get nukes if North Korea never gives them up, something they could probably do quickly; North Korea’s precedent could encourage more and more countries to look into building nukes. But it’s a risk worth taking — after all, 9 countries now have nukes, and there hasn’t been a nuclear war yet.

Another problem is the sanctions regime. After 12 years of harsher and harsher sanctions, it would be impractical for America to suddenly back down without an excuse. This is a big problem, and it will probably keep a reconciliation policy from happening in the near future. But I’m not convinced that sanctions are working. It’s extremely hard to understand North Korea given its near-total isolation, but it’s lasted over 70 years and survived devastating war, horrible famine and punishing sanctions. North Koreans are used to hardship, and take pride in their stamina. The longer economic avenues are severed, the more likely they are to lash out and resort to criminal activity to get by.

There is the problem of rewarding bad behavior. It’s an understandable concern, but it’s not worth risking a nuclear holocaust over. In international relations, exceptions have to be made to avert tragedies or forestall problems from escalating. North Korean behavior might even improve if its enemies managed to convince it of their peaceful intentions. Human rights activists would object that a regime as brutal and totalitarian as Gim’s deserves no mercy, and frankly it doesn’t. But in reality lots of evil dictators get away with their crimes, and there’s no real way to hold Gim accountable.

A richer North Korea with trade and contact outside of its borders would also only happen if the elite that sustains the regime was kept secure and happy with lucrative contracts and dodgy kickbacks. The country would still be poor and isolated. Myanmar, which basically opened to foreign development 7 years ago, has headed in this direction. But it’s a common development, and this kind of system would be needed to ensure Gim’s cooperation and the elite’s support. Without it, North Korea would just stay angry and isolated.

America has a historic tendency to favor firepower, muscle and bullying because those are its strong suits. When you have the world’s biggest stick, you look for ways to swing it. Anytime a situation calls for diplomacy or patience, Americans tend to get nervous that they are looking weak. They need to relax and remember how scary they look to almost everyone else. Lengthy hostility didn’t prevent America from coming to terms with China, Cuba, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Finally, it is important to consider South Korea. South Koreans have longed for reunification the whole time, and tend to take a sanguine view of their northern siblings. They are used to belligerent warnings and over-the-top boasts and don’t take them seriously. The South’s current president, Mun Jaein, wants to return to the sunshine policy and has reacted warmly to the North’s recent overtures like the joint Korean Olympic team and the visit by Gim Jeong’eun’s sister. Reunification may not be very realistic, but otherwise America and Japan should respect the South’s wishes for reconciliation and peace. Without being naive about Northern intentions, they should welcome any efforts at lowering tensions and accept the reality of a nuclear North Korea.

Gim Jeong’eun’s new strategy seems to be to try to drive a wedge between the hawkish Trump and Shinzou Abe of Japan and the comparatively dovish Mun. Trump and Abe should avert this by aligning their policies more closely with Mun’s. North Korea might be the single worst country on Earth with no real friends and a population desperate to get out. But I was in Hawai’i this year during the missile scare, and I can safely say the specter of nuclear Armageddon should make everyone think twice about acting tough in these circumstances.