A Pragmatic View on North Korea
North Korea and the Kim Dynasty are a classic example of realpolitik on the domestic level. The Kim Dynasty is extremely successful, having stayed in power for 70 years (and counting), despite the fact that they have few allies, a starving populace, and are surrounded by powerful and wealthy countries: China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea.
Domestically, North Korea has survived through its personality cult and Orwellian style misinformation. The Kim Dynasty is worshipped as if they are gods, noble rulers who liberated Korea from Japan in the 1940s and stood up to US “imperialism” in the 1950s. When the people of North Korea starve, they are told that other countries have it much worse. They are fed nonstop propaganda on how the United States will invade at any second in an attempt to assert their imperialist agenda. But rest assured, for according to DPRK propaganda, the unstoppably powerful North Korean military will destroy the United States before they can even start. With their control of all information coming in and out of the country, and widespread internet censorship, they’ve managed to avoid having to democratize, as China and the USSR were forced to due to the information age. Essentially, the Kim Dynasty sits on an incredibly strong throne of lies.
On the international stage, meanwhile, Kim Jong Un has undoubtedly been successful. The United States and NATO have helped to overthrow several dictatorships - Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Gaddafi in Libya, and Milosevic in Yugoslavia - in the first 17 years of the 21st century. Yet the Kim dynasty, more autocratic and a greater threat to global stability than any of the aforementioned leaders, has stayed in power. This can be attributed to one thing - North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il were not clueless. They saw Gaddafi terminate his nuclear weapons program, followed by an overthrow of Gaddafi 8 years later. They saw Saddam Hussein, a man with an extremely powerful army (by Arab standards) but no nuclear weapons have his armies crushed in a month in 2003, and Saddam hanging from a rope in 2006. There is simply no way that Kim Jong Un will give up some sort of tremendous bargaining chip, be it nuclear weapons of his own or a guaranteed nuclear deterrent from another country, unless his country is brought to the total brink of collapse (meaning all trade with North Korea ceases).
It’s not like Kim Jong Un will use his nuclear weapons in a first strike either. A first strike on Japan, South Korea, or Guam, would be downright suicidal. If he did, he would soon have the entire might of the US nuclear arsenal bearing down on him - something he cannot survive. Rather, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a pure deterrent. Sure, the United States could wipe all of North Korea off the map within a few minutes. However, China could easily detect a launch and relay the information to North Korea, resulting in North Korea launching off its missiles before US nukes even arrive. So which cities would be wiped out? At the current state of North Korea's missile development, it could be Seoul or Tokyo, cities of 10 and 34 million people respectively. Within a few months, it could be Los Angeles or San Francisco. Within a year, it could be Washington DC or New York City being vaporized in an atomic fireball, in response to a United States nuclear attack.
The problem with North Korea is twofold. Firstly, if the North Korean government collapses for any reason, there is a massive threat. Generals, in a scramble for power, could easily seize nuclear weapons and use them on each other, creating havoc in East Asia. Another possible event in this scenario is that Kim Jong Un truly goes rogue, and orders nuclear strikes - whether it be due to a rebellion, an embargo, or Kim Jong Un’s own mental state. Secondly, North Korea is a powerful chip for China, especially when it comes to disputes in the South China Sea. China could very easily get concessions from the United States if it threatened to open up more trade with North Korea.
A potential solution to this problem is similar to that proposed by Henry Kissinger. This involves a mutual understanding and an eventual deal between China and the United States, and the deal would take the following form. China would use its economic and diplomatic dominance over North Korea to force North Korea into giving up its nuclear program, followed by international verification. The logic behind this is simple - the existence of North Korea depends on Chinese imports, and without these imports, North Korea would surely collapse. But China supports North Korea as a buffer zone against the US-backed South - what does it get in return? In exchange, the US would significantly reduce the amount of troops and military equipment it has in South Korea. Meanwhile, the US would open up more aid to North Korea and begin to incorporate North Korea as a fully capable member of the international community. While not perfect - the US does slightly decrease its influence in Asia- in exchange, North Korea’s nuclear threat is neutralized and tensions in Asia as a whole are significantly de-escalated.
A large problem, like the one presented by North Korea, requires a grand solution. This sort of deal provides the solution. Diplomacy requires sides making concessions, but the end goal, in this case, is a denuclearized peninsula and a path forward for North Korea and its 24 million citizens.