North Korea is acting up again. I think the US response thus far has been generally correct. Options are obviously limited and the best way forward, as I have suggested before, might be something like: don't feed the troll.
With all that said, however, I was thinking today: what would Han Feizi do?
Han, of course, views all things through the lens of his number one priority: keeping the ruler in power. Thus, he is wary of foreign policy generally, worried that it might distract a ruler from more important domestic political dynamics:
We can, nonetheless, adapt some of his political principles to foreign policy, in this case to the question of what US objectives should be when it comes to NK.
In the opening chapter of Watson's Basic Writings translation (section 5 of the original text), Han speaks to the question of "The Way of the Ruler." He writes:
The ruler must not reveal his desires; for if he reveals his desires his ministers will put on a mask that pleases him. He must not reveal his will; for if he does so his ministers will show a different face. (16)
It must be kept in mind here that, for Han, ministers pose a fundamental political threat to the ruler: they are closest to his power and the ones most likely to foment and benefit from an overthrow of his power. Han does not mince words in warning of the dangers ministers pose to the ruler: "The only reason the ministers do not assassinate their sovereign is that their parties and cliques are not strong enough." (40).
Thus, Han's analysis of the ruler-minister adversarial relationship might be transferable to other adversarial relationships, such as that between the US and NK.
In that case, Han would counsel the US not to reveal its objectives, because if those "desires" are known to Pyongyang, then Kim Jong-il will use that knowledge as leverage for his own political benefit. And that is precisely what is going on in NK now.
The US and other regional actors have announced that denuclearization is their prime objective in the NK standoff, it is their desire. Kim knows that. Thus, he promises denuclearization to get what he wants and, alternatively, threatens further development of nuclear weapons to promote his interests. This has worked, to some degree. He got the 1994 Framework Agreement. He compelled the Bush administration to change policy and negotiate with "evil doers." And now he is ramping up the threats to get more of what he wants.
In these circumstances, Han Feizi might suggest to Obama that the US should stop declaring its objectives. It might even be sensible to announce that we no longer seek denuclearization of NK, that we can live with NK as a nuclear power (which we have essentially been doing for years now). And then shut up. Make no statement as to what we want from NK. Do not reveal our desires and our will. Let Kim guess at our intentions. Perhaps, then, the momentum would shift. Instead of NK knowing how to manipulate the US based on its stated objectives, NK would have to be more forthcoming in revealing its desires, which would put the US in a position to steer events.
That, in any event, would be Han Feizi's advice....