A new policy of “malign neglect”

A new policy of “malign neglect”

By Mitchell B. Reiss

North Korea’s recent launch of its rocket over the Pacific no doubt served multiple agendas for Kim Jong-il: demonstrating toughness to a domestic audience at a time when some may be questioning his life expectancy, retaliating against both South Korea and Japan for perceived and real slights, enhancing the country’s marketing strategy for foreign missile sales, and raising the price for any possible buy-out should the Six Party Talks reconvene. Not a bad day’s work for the leader of a poor, dysfunctional, friendless country.

Obama administration officials, after having warned (and failed to dissuade) the North not to launch, are now blustering about how Pyongyang’s action violated UN Security Council 1718 (a pretty strained reading of the resolution), further isolated the North (as if that was possible) and should now be punished by additional UN sanctions (not going to happen). 

So what can the United States do? Let’s review the options.

Military action is not viable, especially with the United States already committed to two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Short of a second Korean war, military options have priced themselves out of the market, as indeed they have for the past fifty-plus years.

Economic sanctions have been ineffective in shaping Pyongyang’s behavior, even when there has been rare agreement in the UN Security Council.  (Enforcing compliance is another matter altogether. Despite past UN resolutions banning luxury items, there appears to be no shortage on fine cognac and fancy electronics in Pyongyang.) China and Russia have already stated publicly in the past few days that they are not willing to impose additional UN sanctions. The United States, Japan, and South Korea could unilaterally adopt commercial and other trade sanctions. But the reality is that these countries’ leverage is limited due to their relative lack of interaction with the North, Pyongyang’s willingness to allow its people to suffer hardship and, perhaps most important of all, China’s unwillingness to allow the North to collapse. 

Diplomatically, that leaves the Six Party Talks (6PT). During the past few years, the Bush administration staked out untenable positions only to capitulate after the North raised tensions, whether over the Banco Delta Asia accounts in Macau or the October 2006 nuclear test. Predictably, rewarding North Korea’s misbehavior only encouraged more misbehavior. By repeatedly telegraphing its eagerness to return to the Six Party Talks, the Obama administration now appears to be making the same mistake. 

So what to do? I would advocate a policy of what might be termed "malign neglect." The starting assumption is that the North Koreans will now play hard to get, using their reluctance to return to the Six Party Talks as leverage for an easing of sanctions, provision of additional food aid, a resumption of energy assistance, or other benefits. And no doubt the Obama team will try to appease the North’s desires and ease them back to the negotiating table.

This would be a mistake. Although it is possible for the United States to bribe the North back to the negotiating table (we have done it before), this would be mistaking process for substance. The goal of the Six Party Talks is not to get to the North Koreans to the bargaining table. It is for the North Koreans to want to come to the table to investigate whether it makes sense for them to abandon their nuclear weapons programs and forge a fundamentally new relationship with the United States and the region. The United States and the other 6PT members cannot make this calculation for Pyongyang and they should stop trying to do so.

Instead, the Obama administration should do three things:

First, it needs to state that it is prepared to resume the Six Party Talks whenever the North is ready to do so — and then say nothing else. There is really not much more to say, anyway. For once, we should at least try to be as patient as the North Koreans.

Second, the United States needs to repair relations with our two major allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea. Both relationships have been bruised in recent years and Seoul and Tokyo are anxious about whether the new team in Washington will fully consult and coordinate on its North Korea policy. In this sense, the North Korean nuclear issue is not about North Korea at all. It is about the United States preserving alliance relations. After all, we can’t control what the North does, but we can control what we do in relation to Seoul and Tokyo. 

Third, we ought to welcome South Korea’s joining the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and encourage China to do so. These actions should be part of a clear and unequivocal message sent to Pyongyang that the international community will not tolerate the North’s export of any nuclear technology or ballistic missiles. In addition to enhancing global security, this would choke off a source of hard currency to the regime.

These modest steps, forming a policy of "malign neglect," may be unsatisfying to many. But they have the merit of placing the burden for progress in the negotiations on North Korea, where they should be, on playing to U.S. strengths in our alliance relations in the region, and on aligning our nonproliferation interests for the Korean peninsula with those of the international community.