By any normal measure, the DPRK should be irrelevant. Bankrupt, starving, and bereft of allies, Pyongyang is becoming the least of nations.
Arrayed against it is an imposing coalition. The Republic of Korea (ROK) possesses 30 times the GDP and twice the population of the North. Japan is the world’s second‐ranking economic power with a limited but potent military. Russia was once allied with Pyongyang, but is now shipping weapons to Seoul to pay off its debts. China has far greater economic links — trade and investment — with the South.
The DPRK does possess a numerically large army, supplemented by missile development and atomic research programs. There is, however, little behind this seemingly imposing edifice. Pyongyang’s conventional capabilities have fallen sharply, while its nuclear program is only presumed. North Korea’s missiles are few in number and highly inaccurate.
The North’s real trump is its willingness to play the game of high brinkmanship. Although the new weapon probably could hit Alaska, it is North Korea that would disappear in a radioactive cloud. Moreover, the DPRK already possesses a missile capable of hitting both the South and Japan. The prospective missile test looks to be just one more attempt to shake loose some of the West’s spare change.
For all of the perversities of North Korean behavior, the regime’s conduct remains far more benign than in the past. The administration has an opportunity to reconfigure present policy with the completion of former Defense Secretary William Perry’s review of U.S. policy towards the North.
America’s overriding goal should be to maintain peace on the peninsula until North Korea falls into the great dustbin of history. To encourage that end, modest concessions like the easing of sanctions proposed by the administration are good investments. But Washington should reverse today’s dynamic, under which Pyongyang misbehaves in the hope of receiving more benefits.
Although the United States and its allies should continue discussing planned missile tests with the DPRK — North Korea has agreed to temporarily halt such launches — they should not provide an explicit quid pro quo. Instead, they should indicate that a number of benefits will be forthcoming if Pyongyang stops needlessly antagonizing its neighbors.
The allies should give the DPRK increasing benefits when it behaves, not when it misbehaves. Should it revert to its policy of disruptive belligerence, all three countries should retaliate quickly but quietly.
They should adopt an official attitude of insouciance — who cares what the North does? However, without public fanfare or threats, which would likely make the North more obdurate, the allied states should slow or suspend positive movement on other issues.
The goal should be to squeeze the North, but not too hard. Again, the objective is to push the DPRK toward a more positive stance without creating either a potentially violent implosion or causing it to strike out. For the same reason the United States and its allies should fulfill their commitments under the Framework Accord. Welshing, and thereby risking a restart of the nuclear crisis, would benefit no one.
Over the long term Washington should disentangle itself from Northeast Asia. The United States should step back, leaving Seoul and Tokyo to take the lead in dealing with the North. More important, Washington should develop a phased withdrawal program for its troops, and terminate the defense treaty when the pullout is complete.
The ROK should then challenge the North to respond positively by demobilizing some army units and withdrawing some advanced forces from the Demilitarized Zone. The South’s private message should be more blunt: negotiate for serious arms reduction, or face a crushing arms race (including missile development) which North Korea cannot win. And the ROK and Japan should expand security cooperation that, despite some recent positive steps, remains minimal.
Pyongyang’s expressed willingness to back off its planned missile test offers only a temporary respite in a continuing game of international chicken. The United States should begin shifting responsibility for security in Northeast Asia onto its allies, who benefit the most from stability. The Cold War is over; it is time to terminate America’s obsolete Cold War deployment in Korea.