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Déjà vu all over again with North Korea

The pattern is sickeningly familiar. North Korea reveals (or is caught with) a previously unknown nuclear weapons program (except that the intelligence community had warned it was there all along). The United States and its allies vow that this will only lead to further "isolation" of the North (next the comfy pillow). North Korea pledges to bring all ...

By , the CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

The pattern is sickeningly familiar. North Korea reveals (or is caught with) a previously unknown nuclear weapons program (except that the intelligence community had warned it was there all along). The United States and its allies vow that this will only lead to further "isolation" of the North (next the comfy pillow). North Korea pledges to bring all out war to the peninsula and engages in dangerous military escalation. The North then invites some well-meaning Americans to Pyongyang to profess their sincere interest in de-nuclearlizing the Korean peninsula, if only the United States would abandon its "hostile policy." Beijing calls for restraint on all sides and an immediate return to talks. The administration is skeptical, but seeing no other path agrees to return to the talks. An agreement is finally hammered out where the North freezes the least interesting part of its fissile material production (temporarily, of course) in exchange for sanctions relief, heavy fuel oil, aid or other concessions. The North waits, cheats on the agreement, creates another crisis, and continues marching towards its goal of marrying nuclear warheads to ballistic missiles and winning acceptance as a full nuclear weapons state.

....repeat as necessary.

And repeat North Korea has. With the North-South denuclearization accord in 1991 (violated); the Agreed Framework in 1994 (violated); the DPRK-Japan Pyongyang Declaration in 2002 (violated); the 2005 Six Party Joint Statement (violated) and the 2007 and 2008 Six Party agreements (violated).

The pattern is sickeningly familiar. North Korea reveals (or is caught with) a previously unknown nuclear weapons program (except that the intelligence community had warned it was there all along). The United States and its allies vow that this will only lead to further "isolation" of the North (next the comfy pillow). North Korea pledges to bring all out war to the peninsula and engages in dangerous military escalation. The North then invites some well-meaning Americans to Pyongyang to profess their sincere interest in de-nuclearlizing the Korean peninsula, if only the United States would abandon its "hostile policy." Beijing calls for restraint on all sides and an immediate return to talks. The administration is skeptical, but seeing no other path agrees to return to the talks. An agreement is finally hammered out where the North freezes the least interesting part of its fissile material production (temporarily, of course) in exchange for sanctions relief, heavy fuel oil, aid or other concessions. The North waits, cheats on the agreement, creates another crisis, and continues marching towards its goal of marrying nuclear warheads to ballistic missiles and winning acceptance as a full nuclear weapons state.

….repeat as necessary.

And repeat North Korea has. With the North-South denuclearization accord in 1991 (violated); the Agreed Framework in 1994 (violated); the DPRK-Japan Pyongyang Declaration in 2002 (violated); the 2005 Six Party Joint Statement (violated) and the 2007 and 2008 Six Party agreements (violated).

But this time, according to former President Jimmy Carter in the November 24 Washington Post, North Korea really is interested in an agreement for denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

Anyway, back to what is really happening. And that is this. Kim Jong Un, the 27-year-old third son of Kim Jong Il (recently promoted to Four Star General) needs to demonstrate that he is willing to go all the way to war (in the worlds of the DPRK’s Japanese language website). When Kim Jong Il had his coming out party in the 1980s, he demonstrated his bona fides by directing operations to blow-up the South Korean cabinet in Rangoon and plant a bomb in a Korean Airlines Flight, killing everyone aboard.

That is the first goal. The second goal is to knock the United States and its allies off guard after revealing to former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Sigfried Hecker that the North had built an advanced uranium enrichment facility in violation of all its prior agreements. Sanctions and pressure? Only if you are prepared to be met with massive firepower. That is the message to the outside world.

This round of the North Korean game is more dangerous though, for two reasons. First, Kim Jong Un is on much shakier ground than Kim Jong Il was three decades ago. The fabric of North Korean society and the legitimacy of the regime are much more fragile. It is not clear whether the younger "Great General" or the aging "Dear Leader" will be able to pull back from escalation as easily as they have in the past.

The second reason this is more dangerous is because uranium enrichment opens a new production line of potentially a bomb a year to the North. This is particularly threatening when one considers North Korea’s support for Syria’s El Kibar reactor construction, which Israel bombed in 2007, and Pyongyang’s dialogue with Burma about a similar capability. It is also worrisome since the centrifuge facility shown to Hecker may only be one part of the North Korean uranium enrichment (and probably highly enriched uranium) capability.

The Obama administration’s opening response has been smart. They have not fueled the sense of crisis in a way that would give Pyongyang more leverage, but they have shown resolve by deploying the USS George Washington to the coast of the peninsula. Now comes the hard part: changing Beijing’s calculus so that China deters the North from further escalation (at a minimum) and perhaps brings enough pressure to bear to change North Korea’s calculus about its nuclear weapons program (much harder). Beijing’s opening response- an expression of sympathy and a call for restraint on all sides and immediate resumption of the Six Party Talks–is not promising. If we are going to dissuade North Korea from repeating business as usual, we will first have to find ways to convince Beijing that the United States is no longer going to respond as usual. That means visibly enhanced defense cooperation with Japan and Korea, a refusal to return to the Six Party Talks without North Korean moves to return to the status quo ante, and enhanced interdiction operations against North Korea based on existing UNSC resolutions. That will be uncomfortable for an already heavily laden U.S.-China bilateral agenda, but so be it. 

Michael J. Green is the CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a distinguished scholar at the Asia Pacific Institute in Tokyo, and a former senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @DrMichaelJGreen

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