Daniel W. Drezner

Strategic impatience on North Korea

North Korea has spent the past week demanding that someone pay attention to them.  In response, online policy recommendations have ranged from Thomas P.M. Barnett’s doubling down on strategic patience to Glenn Reynolds recommendation that the U.S. nuke North Korea "if they start anything."   The IR wing of the blogosphere is pretty pessimistic about the current situation.  ...

North Korea has spent the past week demanding that someone pay attention to them.  In response, online policy recommendations have ranged from Thomas P.M. Barnett’s doubling down on strategic patience to Glenn Reynolds recommendation that the U.S. nuke North Korea "if they start anything."  

The IR wing of the blogosphere is pretty pessimistic about the current situation.  Rob Farley concludes:

North Korean behavior has vexed Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama. The difficulty doesn’t lie with the delusions or incompetence of any American administration, although the United States has suffered from its fair share of both. Rather, reaching a conclusive agreement with North Korea is simply beyond the capabilities of the United States. Under current circumstances, North Korea cannot be "solved"; it can only be managed.

In a follow-up post, Farley is even more pessimistic:

The best we can do now is hope for change internal to North Korea, which need not necessarily take the form of full-scale regime change. I suspect that Kim Jong Il needs to be dead before any meaningful change can happen, not necessarily because he’s particularly crazy or irrational, but rather because the impending succession crisis makes any diplomatic maneuver more difficult for North Korea. I should hasten to add that I don’t support military action in the service of regime change; the costs are virtually incalculable. I do think that military response is one necessary managerial tool for the relationship, but it is critically important that any response to specific provocations is measured, limited, and spearheaded by South Korea.

 Dan Nexon looks at the strategic calculus and concludes that escalation won’t happen:

[N]one of this suggests an alteration in the basic factors that restrain Seoul:

a)  Before they collapse, North Korean forces will kill a lot of South Koreans and do a lot of damage to South Korea’s economy;

b)  The United States has no appetite for taking part in an additional large-scale military conflict;

c)  Uncertainty surrounding Beijing’s likely actions in the event of a conflict; and

d)  The significant challenges that would come from assuming control of North Korean territory if the conflict leads to ROK victory in a full-blown war. 

These four factors–two of which aren’t particularly manipulable–make significant escalation unlikely.

Erik Voeten notes that if the reason for the current dust-ups are internal rather than external, then escalation would be a bad move:

If this is a provocation as usual, then new negotiations and concessions may "work" in the sense that they will quiet the North Koreans until they feel the need to provoke again. If [Victor] Cha is right, then the North Korean leadership may actually want to see a limited military response that they can defend themselves against in some heroic fashion.

Finally, here at FP, both Michael Green and Steve Walt recommend that the U.S.not play into Pyongyang’s hands by overreaqcting, and try reach some accord with China over what to do with the preoblem child of Northeast Asia.  Aidan Foster-Carter argues that… er… well, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what he’s arguing.  He starts by saying that there’s no way Beijing is going to rein in its bestest ally, but then he observes that since China is North Korea’s only ally, "if [North Korea’s leaders] have an ounce of sense, they must know the old game is up. Militant mendicancy won’t cut it any more; no one will buy that old horse again."  So damned if I know what he’s saying.

Speaking for myself, the artillery barrage, although scary, is not what scares me about the stituation.  No, the guided tour of their new light water nuclear reactor facility is the real game-changer on the Korean penunsula, because it undercuts the U.S. policy of strategic patience.  See, 18 months ago, I wrote:

I think maybe, just maybe, the international community has found a status quo that makes the North Koreans less comfortable than everyone else.  Assuming that the interdiction and sanctions regime works well — which is a robust but not entirely unreasonable assumption — then North Korea gets nothing for thumbing its nose at the world except some more weapons-grade fissile material. 

That’s not nothing, but it’s not all that much either.  Pyongyang already has a deterrent to prevent invasion.  It can’t threaten nuclear blackmail all that persuasively, because it’s a pretty hollow threat on their part.  And if they can’t sell their technology to other countries, then there’s no profit in it for them either.  Which means they’re stuck, wallowing in their own barren dirt.

The fast development of a light-water reactor — during a period when the DPRK leadership has been kinda busy with an uncertain leadership transition — changes the strategic calculus.  It suggests that North Korea has not been contained; instrad, Pyongyang has been able to ramp up a technologically sophisticated prograqm during the time period when that task should have been fantastically difficult.   

How did this happen?  At least one of the following things must be true:

1)  North Korea has developed an indigenous group of nuclear researchers with sufficient brainpower and access to resources to move forward in the nuclear arena;

2)  Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the sanctions/interdiction regime is leaking like a sieve.

3)  Elements of the Chinese leadership are saying "f*** it" and assisting the DPRK in their nuclear program. 

4)  The entire Chinese leadership is saying "f*** it"  and assisting the DPRK in their nuclear program. 

If (1)  or (4) are the problems, they can’t be fixed.  North Korea won’t stop, and telling the Chinese to act contrary to their own perceived interest isn’t a viable strategy.  I’m not really sure that (2) is the problem, but ramping up Proliferation Security Initiative efforts does force Beijing to sit up and pay notice, since it really means a lot more unfriendly warships in its backyard, which might affect (3) or (4).  It probably won’t cause the Chinese to change their mind, however.  (3) might be fixable, but I doubt it.  Beijing’s slow-motion response to the latest contretemps suggests that if the problem is a divided foreign policy leadership in Beijing, then it’s a problem that won’t be going away anytime soon.  Meanwhile, the sanctions regime will falter. 

So, for now, I’d advocate increasing the PSI presence surrounding North Korea while demonstrating a receptivity to talks if/when Pyongyang drops the  brinksmanship routine.  Very reluctantly, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s time to call the North Koreans in their game of Crazy No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em.  Voeten hypothesizes that a low-level military attack would be just the thing Kim the Older would need to boost support for Kim the Younger.  A more costly military attack — say, the Yongbyon facility — might have the reverse effect, however. 

Of course, the problem with that option is that the North Koreans could respond by ramping up the retaliation.  This is why I’m only beginning to wonder about this possibility.  There really is a point, however, after which Pyongyang doesn’t want this to escalate — because in an all-out war, North Korea really does lose. 

The question is whether that point can be located without a Second Korean War breaking out as a result.  That risk is what gives me serious pause about considering any military option. 

Increasingly, however, I don’t think the status quo can hold. 

Brilliant and original policy ideas are welcomed in the comments section. 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola