Strategic Patience Is Strategic Blunder

Don't believe the hype: Obama's North Korea plan is a mess.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

A front-page story in June 13’s New York Times tells the dramatic tale of how an American destroyer, the USS McCampbell, in waters south of Shanghai, recently intercepted a North Korean ship believed to be carrying weapons and missile parts bound for Burma. After refusing a request to board, the ship’s master turned around and headed back to North Korea. Any casual reader would walk away with the impression that Washington’s efforts to tame Pyongyang are working. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course, any steps taken by the international community to stop North Korea’s exports of dangerous technologies should be applauded. But let’s not make the mistake of believing our own press releases. A cash-starved country that managed to export to Syria, undetected, an entire nuclear reactor designed to produce bomb-making material isn’t going to be deterred by the occasional ship interception. That’s also the conclusion, by the way, of a leaked U.N. panel of experts’ report that documents major gaps in our efforts to halt the North’s illicit exports.

In fact, the recent news about North Korea has been almost uniformly bad for a U.S. administration that has been pursuing a policy dubbed "strategic patience" — essentially, waiting for North Korea to change its bad behavior before engaging with it in nuclear negotiations. The bad news started a few weeks ago with leader Kim Jong Il’s unprecedented third trip to China in the past two years, a visit that seems to have yielded economic benefits that can only buttress the regime and conversely undermine a U.S. policy designed to isolate North Korea.

Then, immediately after Kim’s visit, Pyongyang killed any possibility of resuming dialogue with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak by disclosing secret overtures made by Seoul to arrange a summit with the North Korean leader. Aside from embarrassing a government that has insisted on an apology from the North for its provocative acts against the South in 2010, Pyongyang’s move sabotaged Washington’s regional strategy, which has called for North-South dialogue before the resumption of six-party talks.

Finally, there has been news of further construction activity at North Korea’s main nuclear facility at Yongbyon, site of the uranium enrichment program dramatically unveiled to the international community late last year. Commercial satellite photos show activity at the site, though it is still unclear what is happening. But the important point is that just because the North isn’t conducting nuclear or long-range missile tests, doesn’t mean it isn’t still working on strengthening its nuclear arsenal. What we see is the tip of a nuclear iceberg — from efforts to produce highly enriched uranium to others intended to build nuclear warheads to place on new missiles.

All these developments are clear signs that the Obama administration’s policy has reached a dead end. If the United States continues its approach, there will almost certainly be no nuclear talks with North Korea until a new South Korean president takes office two years from now. In the meantime, the challenges posed by the North will only grow as it moves into production of highly enriched uranium for new nuclear weapons and further develops missile delivery systems. There is also the prospect of further provocations by Pyongyang, which could bring us dangerously closer to war on the Korean Peninsula. Seoul will have no choice but to respond more forcefully after exercising admirable but politically difficult restraint in 2010.

While Barack Obama’s administration appears oblivious to these developments, it would do well to follow the prescription of outgoing Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who in an interview with Foreign Policy observed, "You shouldn’t just kind of assume that once you’ve developed a policy that it’s the right policy and the right policy forever."

Action by the United States could help change this dangerous equation. Washington, with the support of its allies and other concerned parties — China and Russia — should reset its policy and take the lead in efforts to restart nuclear dialogue by directly engaging the North. Nothing is certain, but Pyongyang is probably uncomfortable with getting too close to its giant Chinese neighbor. So it may respond positively to an opening from Washington to counterbalance those growing ties. Ironically, Beijing would welcome a U.S. initiative because it is unhappy with the current deadlock.

A new initiative should seek to fashion a small package deal that would address pressing concerns ranging from tensions in North-South relations to the nuclear threat. It would include four main elements.

First, North Korea would express regret for the loss of life that resulted from the inter-Korean clashes in 2010 as well as pledge to immediately restart inter-Korean dialogue. Washington helped secure a similar expression in 1996 after a North Korean spy submarine ran aground near the town of Gangneung and 16 South Korean soldiers and civilians were killed in trying to capture the stranded crew.

Second, Pyongyang would agree to take concrete measures to demonstrate its seriousness in resuming nuclear dialogue, such as a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests and agreeing to follow through on its overtures in recent Track II meetings to quickly ship out of the country fresh fuel rods that contain enough plutonium for five nuclear weapons.

Third, the two sides would agree to the immediate resumption of the six-party talks as well as further U.S.-North Korea bilateral meetings. The multilateral process is important, but bilateral discussions will be key to making progress.

Fourth, the parties would agree to begin, immediately after the resumption of nuclear negotiations, a Korean peace process to replace the armistice ending the Korean War with a permanent peace agreement. Progress on this front, a key North Korean demand, will help calm tensions, prevent future provocations, and build lasting peace on the peninsula.

The devil is in the details, of course, but based on recent Track II meetings with the North Koreans held by myself and other Americans, there is a good chance that such an initiative could achieve results. It would, however, require political courage and leadership in Washington and Seoul that may not be present just now.

One important consideration will be the understandable American desire to avoid any appearance of short-circuiting its close relationship with South Korea, an important ally. But Washington needs to start looking ahead to the day when Lee will no longer be in office. The betting money in Seoul is that the next South Korean president will not continue a failed foreign policy intended to separate China from the North while bringing Pyongyang to its knees.

A new U.S. initiative, which should be conducted in close consultation with South Korea, might provoke some near-term tensions with the current government in Seoul, but would likely be welcomed by the South Korean public, with which the U.S. administration’s popularity is high, and establish a firm basis for working closely with whoever is Lee’s successor.

Given events of the past few weeks, an important opportunity has emerged for the Obama administration to quickly reset its North Korea policy. Otherwise, continuing on autopilot will only lead to more bad behavior by Pyongyang that undermines U.S. security interests and those of America’s allies. That means a growing nuclear arsenal, an increasing danger of exporting weapons-of-mass-destruction technologies, and the ever-present threat of escalating tensions on the peninsula.

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