Daniel W. Drezner

The best possible response to the North Korean nuclear test

The best possible response to the North Korean nuclear test

By Daniel W. Drezner

I think the Obama administration has come up with a novel way of dealing with the North Koreans — get everyone to talk about something else

Half-seriously, this is not a bad idea, because I’m not sure that anything else is going to work better (beyond my modest Britney Spears proposal).  For this decade, the following facts have held: 

  1. North Korea wants to be able to trade its nuclear program for security guarantees and cash — and then be able to do it again a few years later.
  2. The leadership in Pyongyang is perfectly willing to starve its own population rather than concede a smidgen of autonomy.
  3. No one is entirely sure about the internal politics of the DPRK elite.  This includes China, by the way. 
  4. None of the actors in the region want North Korea to collapse.  China and Russia likes the buffer, Seoul doesn’t want to pony up the cash for reunification, and Japan (and China) doesn’t want a unified Korean peninsula. 
  5. None of the actors in the region really want North Korea to proliferate either, but that’s less important than a collapsing North Korea.  Proliferation is Somebody Else’s Problem — i.e., the Middle East rather than Northeast Asia. 
  6. So, oddly enough, the ideal short-term solution for the region is for the continued existence of the DPRK regime, the absence of any new nuclear activity, and some kid of "strategic ambiguity" regarding North Korea’s nuclear status. 
  7. The alternatives to the repeated short-term carrot strategy are even less appealing.  There is no viable military option unless everyone is comfortable with the destruction of Seoul; there is no viable sanctions option unless China decides to cut off the energy tap, and they’ll only do this if they’re sure it won’t lead to a stream of North Korea refugees entering Manchuria. 

The one thing that seems different this time around is that North Korea is really pulling out the stops this time to strip away the "pleasing illusion" that the U.N. Security Council will do something.  Paradoxically, this might actually goad China and Russia into doing something — sanctions that might increase the likelihood of a DPRK collapse but also increase the likelihood of Pyongyang altering its behavior before that happens. 

If I, rather than my boss, were advising the Obama administration on this issue, the one other deliverable I would aim for in response to this latest provocation would be to get China to join the Proliferation Security Initiative.  China has resisted this for a whole bunch of reasons unrelated to North Korea.  If Beijing were to reverse course, it would make it much easier to engage in interdiction activities along North Korea’s coast.  It would also signal to Pyongyang that, yes, there actually are some serious costs to thumbing one’s nose at the U.N. Security Council.   

Am I missing anything?