Rethinking the North Korean Threat

August 22, 1999 • Commentary
This article appeared in Newsday, August 22, 1999.

As the most recent standoff with North Korea over nuclear missile‐​testing approaches the decompression point, the United States needs to own up to a central truth: The region of Northeast Asia will never be fully secure until the communist dictatorship of North Korea passes from the scene. After threatening to test a new, long‐​range missile, Pyongyang says it is willing to negotiate with “the hostile nations” opposing it. But whether the North will actually forgo its test launch is anyone’s guess.

That the so‐​called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is able to create so much unease, even in the capital of the world’s sole superpower, demonstrates the foolhardiness of America’s continued entanglement in essentially peripheral security matters. In the short‐​term, Washington should attempt to ease the Korean peninsula’s transition to a new peaceful order. But at the same time, the United States needs to begin disengaging from the region’s unsettling quarrels.

On any normal measure, the DPRK should be irrelevant. Bankrupt, starving and bereft of allies, Pyongyang is becoming the least of nations. Barely 20 countries bother to maintain embassies in the North.

Arrayed against it in the region are the Republic of Korea, which possesses an estimated 30 times the gross domestic product and twice the population of the North, as well as Japan, the world’s second‐​ranking economic power with a limited but potent military. Even China and Russia now lean against the DPRK.

Yet the North continues to drive events in the region. Why? Pyongyang retains two advantages. One is a large army, measured in troop strength, supplemented by missile development and atomic research programs.

There is, however, little behind this seemingly imposing edifice. Pyongyang’s conventional military capabilities have fallen sharply, while its nuclear program is only presumed. North Korea’s missiles are few in number and highly inaccurate. In short, the DPRK has done better convincing the world that it possesses weapons of enormous destructive power than actually acquiring them.

The DPRK’s second advantage is its recourse to the game of high brinksmanship.

Pyongyang regularly engages in highly provocative but apparently irrational conduct.

The result is usually feverish excitement abroad. For instance, North Korea’s latest missile gambit caused House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) to worry that one “cannot overstate the danger this development could present to our national security.” Alas, that’s what the North wants Gilman to think. Although the new weapon probably could hit Alaska, the United States is more than capable of deterring an attack. Moreover, the DPRK already possesses a missile, the Taepo Dong‐​1, capable of hitting both the South and Japan.

The current prospective missile test looks to be just one more attempt to unsettle the DPRK’s adversaries. The North’s probable goal is to shake more cash loose from Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. Largely ignored by the United States and Japan until it hinted at developing a nuclear weapon in 1994, the DPRK agreed to freeze its program in exchange for shipments of heavy oil and construction of a nuclear reactor. Stalked by famine and starvation, Pyongyang has since pushed, with varying success, for food, investment and trade.

For all of the perversities and incongruities of North Korean behavior, the regime’s conduct remains far more benign than in the past. Still, handling a regime that is simultaneously belligerent and opaque is not easy. But with a full review of U.S. policy toward the North under way, the administration should reconfigure present policy.

America’s overriding goal should be to maintain peace on the peninsula.

Although prior predictions of imminent collapse have proved false, North Korea seems destined for the dustbin of history. The only question is whether Pyongyang falls in peacefully.

To encourage that end, modest concessions are good investments. But at the same time, Washington needs to start reversing today’s dynamic, under which the North misbehaves in the hope of receiving more benefits.

Although the United States and its allies should accept Pyongyang’s offer to discuss the planned missile test, 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.

And they should deliver. In the months to come, the United States should drop restrictions on trade, offer diplomatic recognition and cancel future joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises, like the ongoing Ulchi Focus Lens maneuvers. South Korea should expand its so‐​called sunshine policy. Japan should explore the possibility of expanding diplomatic and economic ties to the DPRK.

The allied states should also slow or suspend positive movement on other issues‐​albeit with a minimum of fanfare, since undue public attention will likely make the North more antagonistic. Particularly effective might be Japanese restriction of the remittances from ethnic Koreans to the DPRK, one of the latter’s most important sources of hard currency.

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 the North to strike out. For the same reason, the United States and its allies should fulfill their commitments under the atomic Framework Accord. Risking a restart of the nuclear crisis would benefit no one.

Although U.S. leadership is important in the near term, over the long term Washington 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 allies should encourage South Korea to announce the planned withdrawal, and to 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) that North Korea cannot win. And South Korea and Japan should expand security cooperation, which, despite some recent positive steps, remains minimal.

Pyongyang’s expressed willingness to back off its planned missile test is good news, but offers only a temporary respite in a continuing game of international chicken. The United States and, even more important, Japan and South Korea, should transform the negotiating dynamic that now creates diplomatic incentives for North Korea to misbehave.

At the same time, Washington 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 Cold War commitments.

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