Time to Get Serious About North Korea

Obama's policy of ignoring Pyongyang is a proven failure. It's time to try a different strategy.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

As James Steinberg, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, leaves for Beijing this week to discuss North Korea’s most recent provocation, it is tempting to describe his trip using time-worn quotations from two well-known foreign-policy experts: Yogi Berra (it’s "déjà vu all over again") and Albert Einstein (the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result).

Don’t get me wrong. The North’s recent artillery attack on South Korean territory requires a tough response, or as tough as the United States, South Korea, and Japan can get without precipitating another Korean war. That translates into more military exercises, statements condemning Pyongyang and pledging closer trilateral cooperation, sending the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the region, and working more closely together in the future, for example, on military exercises. All are designed to show North Korea that the United States means business and put pressure on the Chinese to rein in Pyongyang.

But will they work? Weren’t the joint military exercises held this summer after the sinking of the Chenoan supposed to deter future attacks, like the artillery barrage? That doesn’t mean the United States shouldn’t take those steps — or any others that will improve its conventional defenses. But nor should American diplomats kid themselves.

Fifty years of history, if not just pure logic, tell Kim Jong Il that the United States and South Korea will not risk escalation. Just read recently declassified documents about the Richard Nixon administration’s deliberations on how to respond to North Korea’s unprovoked shoot-down of an American EC-121 spy plane in 1969, which killed all the crew members on board. Nixon’s initial impulse to be tough was toned down over time by recognition of the reality that Washington and Seoul have too much to lose in a fight with Pyongyang.

It’s also wrong-headed to think China will bring North Korea to heel. Beijing is probably working behind the scenes to encourage Pyongyang to exercise restraint, just as it did after the Chenoan was sunk. But it is wrong to think that all China has to do is snap its fingers and the North will fall into line. Exercising the potential leverage provided by its extensive ties with Pyongyang is very difficult, in part because no North Korean leader worth his salt is going to knuckle under to Beijing.

More public pressure on China isn’t helpful, either. Chinese leaders are not going to abandon a core national interest in North Korea’s stability and throw Pyongyang overboard because Americans say they should. U.S. leverage, moreover, is limited; threatening closer U.S., South Korean, and Japanese diplomatic and military cooperation isn’t going to budge Beijing. If anything, it may backfire, reinforcing arguments made by Chinese hard-liners that Washington’s real agenda is not just to deal harshly with Pyongyang but also to encircle and contain China.

All of this reflects a much bigger problem. The Obama administration’s policy of "strategic patience" — refusing to engage Pyongyang based on the false assumption that a politically and economically unstable North Korea can be contained — has been a train wreck waiting to happen for some time now. It’s a policy fixated more on process (maintaining the integrity of the six-party nuclear talks in close consultation with allies) and domestic politics (avoiding Republican criticism) than on securing national interests — with the risks of talking to North Korea seen as far greater than the dangers of the status quo.

Anyone who has experience dealing with North Korea, however, knows that Pyongyang cannot be contained through pressure alone. Strategic patience is failing on all fronts: building peace and security on the Korean peninsula, curbing and eventually eliminating North Korea’s nuclear program, and stopping the spread of weapons technology. As first demonstrated by the Chenoan’s sinking last spring, the signs of failure have become clear and unmistakable with the recent tragic artillery attack and the surprise unveiling of Pyongyang’s new uranium enrichment program.

Unless the United States changes course, the threat to its interests and those of its allies will get much worse in the months ahead. Expect more provocations, escalation, and possibly even war.

Equally dangerous, Pyongyang stands on the threshold of a significant expansion of its nuclear arsenal. Up until now, one could argue that the North seemed satisfied with a small stockpile of less than 10 weapons. But like every country that has built nuclear weapons and seemed satisfied with a "minimum deterrent," that can quickly go by the boards. The North’s new uranium enrichment program is a clear sign that we may be on the brink of such an expansion.

One obvious next step for the North will be to restart its 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon and irradiate its remaining 14,000 fresh fuel rods, which contain enough plutonium to at least double its existing stockpile over the next few years. The North Koreans implied as much during my recent visit, along with some colleagues, to Pyongyang in mid-November. Another provocative nuclear test and more missile tests may also be in the works. And if the North is allowed to continue its enrichment program unimpeded, the danger of nuclear exports will grow as well.

Instead of continuing to stumble forward with a failed approach that is inimical to U.S. national interests, the United States needs a realistic strategy designed to secure those interests. My colleagues Robert Carlin and John Lewis recently argued in the Washington Post that it is time for a review of U.S. policy towards North Korea. I applaud the sentiment. In the late 1990s, former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry led such a review, which played a significant role in setting U.S. policy on the right track. (Unfortunately, a reinvigorated high-level diplomatic effort — with the support of South Korea, Japan, and China; the prospect of a visit by President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang; and a landmark shift away from 40 years of U.S.-North Korean hostility — was killed by the election of George W. Bush.)

The main objective of a review would be to discard the current failed approach and to devise a new strategy for dealing with Pyongyang. That will mean answering a number of questions, such as: What additional steps might be taken to bolster the U.S. military posture in the region, given the budgetary limitations going forward? What role can negotiations play in reducing the danger of future provocations, the growth of the North Korean nuclear threat, and the danger of nuclear exports, understanding that Pyongyang is unlikely to eliminate its nuclear program in the immediate future? How might Washington rebuild cooperation with Beijing and at the same time reduce its reliance on China to solve this problem, given their fundamentally different national interests? How might the United States indirectly encourage ongoing societal changes in North Korea that can, over time, help its people build ties with the outside world? What role should South Korea and Japan play in U.S. policy?

The review should allow a greater role for diplomatic efforts with North Korea. The catchy phrases used by this administration to describe its view of diplomacy — it will not talk for the sake of talking, buy the same horse twice, or start negotiations unless the North demonstrates its seriousness — betray not only a fundamental misreading of history but also mask its own uncertainty about what to do and its desire to shield itself from domestic criticism.

Based on our recent discussions with senior North Korean officials in Pyongyang, more active American diplomacy could prove effective in starting to secure U.S. interests. Pyongyang will have its own reasons for responding to American diplomacy, including discomfort with China’s close embrace. U.S. diplomats shouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of this geopolitical reality, particularly since a more active American effort, which China will have no choice but to support, can also help push Beijing out of the role of central actor into a supporting role in this unfolding drama.

In the meantime, since a policy review could take months to complete, the Obama team needs to make sure a bad situation does not get worse, not just by bolstering defenses, but also by conducting creative diplomacy. During our discussions in Pyongyang, the North Koreans clearly indicated they were willing to take limited but important steps forward in the near term, particularly on the denuclearization front. Given the current difficult situation, any such steps will have to pass a litmus test, demonstrating a serious, renewed North Korean commitment to moving in a more positive direction backed up by irreversible concrete measures. Despite the recent artillery attack, a window of opportunity may exist, but probably not for long.

Although Steinberg’s dialogue of the deaf with the Chinese is not likely to produce any results, another trip this week offers more interesting possibilities. On Tuesday, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson will travel to North Korea to meet with senior officials, possibly including Kim Jong Il. His visit may provide a unique opportunity to identify common ground, if it exists, and to start a process of discerning a way forward.

There are no easy paths when it comes to North Korea. But based on how "strategic patience" is working so far, it would be folly not to change course.

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