Recently, a former senior South Korean politician told me he was very discouraged that democratic governments had not been able to stop the North Korean dictatorship from developing nuclear weapons. His heartfelt comment gave me food for thought about the problems and prospects of democracy, especially in regard to dealing with the North Korea problem.
Only 25 years ago, it seemed as if democracy was bound to spread all over the world. The Soviet Union and its satellite states had collapsed. The United States was left as the world’s only superpower. North Korea’s collapse and its absorption by the Republic of Korea seemed only a matter of time. Now, however, democracy seems to be in retreat. Russia under Putin has become more autocratic and reactionary. Under Xi Jinping, China is increasingly dictatorial and nationalistic. British voters rejected membership in the European Union, and Americans have elected a “strong man” as president. North Korea not only survived but also developed nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Democracy’s current problems should remind its supporters that it has serious weaknesses that we must constantly address. As Winston Churchill famously noted, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” In particular, democracy has a fundamental flaw: its success depends on informed voters choosing enlightened leaders. But as the ancient Greeks warned, demagogues constantly seek power by playing upon popular fears and prejudices. In today’s brave new world, domestic demagogues are even being helped by social media campaigns secretly waged by foreign demagogues.
Democracies suffer from many other problems, too, especially policy inconsistency. American presidents think ahead only eight years, at most. South Korean leaders can plan for only five years in power due to a one-term presidential limit. But North Korea’s leaders think in terms of decades. In trying to stop North Korea’s nuclear program over the past quarter century, both the United States and the Republic of Korea often changed their policies when their administrations changed. Making matters even more difficult, sometimes the policies of the two allies diverged. During the same period, North Korea had only two supreme leaders, father and son, and they worked consistently on their top priority of achieving the ability to threaten the United States homeland with nuclear attack.
Some of democracy’s greatest strengths can also be weaknesses. For example, North Korea has exploited the transparency of our democracies. Both South Korean and U.S. media report in great detail on the thinking of their governments about North Korea and even on differences of view among individual officials and political leaders. Pyongyang’s leaders follow these reports extremely closely. Based on the insights they gain, they change their official talking points and external propaganda to deepen divisions within South Korea and the United States and mislead international opinion. The transparency factor is also evident in the political controversy in the South over the United States’ THAAD missile defense deployment there. North Korea maintains strict secrecy about virtually all its military activities. It is unimaginable that North Korean leaders would allow local residents to try to veto a military deployment, as periodically happens in South Korea.
Pyongyang has also taken advantage of democracies’ sense of accountability to their own people and those of their allies. While North Korea’s leaders have never worried much about the lives of their people, early on they realized that South Korean leaders were very much concerned about their people and that American leaders, too, would not risk attacking North Korea for fear it would retaliate by destroying Seoul. As Kim Il-sung privately told Romanian leader Nicolai Ceausescu in 1971, Washington’s weak responses to his provocations such as the capture of the USS Pueblo indicated that it was “not their [the American] intention to fight the [North] Koreans again.” Thus, the North Koreans have continued to feel free to threaten and attack South Korea over the decades.
Given the problems that democracies face in dealing with dictatorships, we should neither be discouraged nor complacent. Dictatorships are inherently weak over the long run. Unlike democracies, which rely on informed citizens, dictatorships require misinformed citizens to remain in power. The inability of dictators to trust their people greatly limits their countries’ potential. North Korea may have developed nuclear weapons and missiles, but in all other respects it is incomparably behind South Korea, and will remain that way.
In regard to the nuclear issue in particular, we should consider the possibility that precisely because of democracy we did not define the problem reasonably. In democracies, leaders are extremely reluctant to admit that some major problems may not be resolvable. They fear that the opposition will criticize them for being weak and ineffective and that the voters will agree. Even under the best of circumstances, it would have been extremely difficult for the United States and South Korea to prevent a determined North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and missiles. But the circumstances were far from the best: the United States and South Korea were not prepared to risk war with Pyongyang to stop it, and China would not offer decisive help to pressure North Korea to change course. So by declaring our goal to be stopping North Korea, we set ourselves up for “failure.”
In any event, North Korea now has nuclear weapons and the United States and South Korea must update their policy. Our goal now should be one that both defends our interests and can actually be accomplished: ensuring that the Pyongyang regime suffers great costs and gains no benefits from possessing nuclear weapons. This requires strengthening deterrence and defense so that North Korea cannot credibly threaten the use of nuclear weapons. We must also continue to increase international sanctions and strengthen their implementation. Such a policy will involve risks and costs for an indefinite period, but it is far preferable to a second Korean War or to trying to appease an insatiable Pyongyang. The Trump and Moon administrations would do well to adopt the policy and lead the international community in implementing it.
David Straub is the Sejong-LS Fellow at The Sejong Institute near Seoul, Korea, and a former Department of State Korean affairs director.
This is a slightly revised version of a commentary originally published in Korean by Munhwa Ilbo.