Turn the Problem of North Korea Over to Its Neighbors

October 24, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes on October 24, 2011.

After nearly two years of a deep freeze between Washington and Pyongyang, the Obama administration has embarked on a new round of nuclear negotiations. “To jaw‐​jaw is always better than to war‐​war,” Winston Churchill rightly observed. But Washington should step back from the Korean peninsula, shifting responsibility for the North Korean “problem” to the North’s neighbors.

The Korean peninsula never was a vital American interest. The U.S. opened relations with the kingdom of Korea shortly before it was swallowed by imperial Japan. Despite Koreans’ plaintive pleas for help, Washington refused to challenge Tokyo.

America ended up in control of the southern half of the peninsula after Japan’s defeat in World War II. U.S. officials had to consult a map to locate their new dependency, and the Pentagon, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur, believed South Korea was not worth defending. However, because the North’s 1950 invasion was seen as Soviet‐​inspired aggression in the worsening Cold War, the Truman administration rushed to the South’s aid, generating a commitment which has lasted 61 years and counting.

Even if the Republic of Korea’s defense then was worth three years of war, the peninsula matters much less to America today. A North Korean attack would no longer be the assumed harbinger to regional or global aggression. Neither Russia nor China would aid an aggressive Pyongyang. And the ROK is well able to defend itself, in contrast to 1950, when Washington had refused to arm its ally after Seoul threatened to invade the north.

There’s no reason for the U.S. to remain entangled on the peninsula through its promise to defend the South backed by the deployment of 27,000 military personnel. That presence causes the so‐​called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to see Washington as its chief antagonist. But for the misnamed “mutual” defense treaty between South Korea and America — the obligation runs only one way, to Seoul — the North would have little reason to target the U.S., either militarily or rhetorically.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently made the astonishing claim that America “would never, ever, be safe if the North Korean” dictatorship survived. However, the U.S. has more firepower in one carrier group than the DPRK has in its entire military. The one nation Pyongyang obviously does not threaten is America.

And while Washington understandably would prefer that the Kim regime not acquire nuclear weapons, “Great Leader” Kim Jong‐​il is evil, not insane. Attacking America would result in his and his regime’s destruction. A growing North Korean nuclear arsenal would generate regional instability, but that prospect should worry China and Russia far more than America.

Unfortunately, Washington is locked in what appears to be an endless cycle of fruitless exchanges with the North. Until now, the Obama administration has made little effort to negotiate with the DPRK, instead focusing on the U.S. relationship with South Korea. But this week Washington officials are in Geneva for their second round of “exploratory” meetings with North Korean diplomats. Just what does the Obama administration expect to achieve by resuming nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang?

The mere act of talking may provide some benefit. Victor Cha, a former Bush administration aide, argues that the DPRK tends to act less provocatively when it is engaging the U.S. However, that effect is likely to fade if no new American concessions are forthcoming.

Anyway, the administration wants more, the implementation of prior commitments. “We do not intend to reward the North just for returning to the table,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Joel Wit, who handled North Korea in the Clinton administration, hopes for lesser agreements which still may stop a further deterioration in “the security situation on the Korean Peninsula.”

These are worthy objectives, but there is no reason to believe that the Kim regime is prepared to do much more than return to the table. Of course, the North Korean dictator claims that he wants to make a deal — “The DPRK adheres to the goal of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula,” Kim Jong‐​il reportedly claimed on his recent trip to Russia. But we have heard that before.

In fact, the Kim regime has invested much in creating a nuclear arsenal — at least in potential if not in being. Only the North’s nuclear program has caused the world to take notice of an otherwise impoverished and inconsequential nation. The DPRK initiative also helped scare South Korea into providing billions in aid and investment. Perhaps more important, Kim’s ability to strike Seoul with conventional weapons backed by a potential atomic capability deters U.S. officials ever ready to force regime change abroad.

Why should Kim give up all that? Especially today, when he faces serious political challenges at home.

Korean culture reveres age and wisdom, yet Kim is attempting to transfer power to his not‐​yet‐​30‐​year‐​old son, nicknamed the “Cute Leader.” Pyongyang is full of communist apparatchiks, as well as other Kim family members, long waiting for their turn in power. The armed services, elevated by Kim’s “military first” policy, may have their own ambitions. Trading away the military’s most valuable asset would require challenging the DPRK’s most powerful institution, a risky step even for Kim, especially in the midst of a potentially fragile power transfer.

Rather than lead yet another futile effort to eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons, Washington should disengage from the Korean peninsula. Independent of negotiations with the North, the U.S. should phase out its troop presence in and security commitment to South Korea, and thus its major point of confrontation with the DPRK.

Washington has provided a peacetime military shield for the ROK for 58 years. During that time the South has raced past the North on virtually every measure of national power. With upwards of 40 times the North’s GDP, Seoul can do whatever is necessary for its own defense. The U.S. should not reflexively preserve an alliance created in a very different circumstance to meet a very different threat.

As Washington steps back, it should indicate its willingness to the DPRK to open diplomatic relations and ease economic sanctions. An embassy would provide a small portal into what remains the world’s most isolated state; political links would engage what is likely to be a changing leadership. Even modest economic ties would underscore the benefit of an opening to the West.

However, the U.S. government should provide no aid, food or financial, to Pyongyang. Tragically, millions of North Koreans are hungry, and UN Undersecretary‐​General Valerie Amos has been lobbying for more international food assistance. But it is impossible to keep politics out of even “humanitarian” aid. Government‐​to‐​government assistance boosts the Kim regime, which has turned the entire nation into a deadly prison camp.

On security matters Washington should point Pyongyang to its neighbors. Issues from conventional demobilization to nuclear nonproliferation are primarily regional concerns. Yet as long as America takes the lead, the North’s neighbors will duck their responsibility.

Only the ROK faces an existential conventional threat from the DPRK. Seoul, South Korea’s industrial and political heart, lies within range of the North’s abundant artillery and SCUD missiles. Last year North Korea sank a South Korean navy vessel and bombarded a South Korean island.

President Barack Obama recently met with South Korean President Lee Myung‐​bak, opining: “Together we’ve succeeded in changing the equation with the North, by showing that its provocations will be met not with rewards but with even stronger sanctions and isolation.” But the country that should do the deterring is the South. The latter also should take the lead in negotiating a formal peace agreement to end a war which technically continues (a ceasefire ended the fighting in 1953).

Although Japan lies beyond the reach of Pyongyang’s numerous ground forces, Tokyo fears North Korean development of more accurate and powerful missiles as well as nuclear weapons. Japan should boost its own deterrent capabilities, instead of relying on Washington, and cooperate more with the ROK to promote regional security.

Russia has little to fear militarily from the North, but would prefer a stable and peaceful East Asia. Until recently Russia, owed $11 billion by Pyongyang, has distanced itself from the North. However, Kim Jong‐​il recently visited Siberia and talked with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about building a natural gas pipeline to the South. Moscow should use its increased influence with Pyongyang to promote more moderate behavior.

So, too, the People’s Republic of China. Today’s status quo appears to work to Beijing’s advantage. However, North Korea threatens a violent breakdown of the very order which has enriched and empowered the PRC. A war on the Korean peninsula or violent collapse of the DPRK would unsettle the entire region, including China. Not much better would be an unstable, unpredictable North Korea with an expanding nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang likely would grow even more disdainful of Beijing’s advice, while South Korea and Japan would feel increasing pressure to develop countervailing nuclear weapons.

Chinese officials appear to have tired of Pyongyang’s antics, but the PRC has been enhancing economic ties with the North. And Beijing has done nothing practical to back up its boilerplate admonition for North Korea to improve relations with the U.S. and ROK, repeated last week. If the U.S. pulled back, however, the PRC no longer could treat North Korean irresponsibility as a matter of indifference. To the contrary, Beijing would have to confront the possibility of a regional breakdown.

The U.S. should encourage the efforts of other states to engage the North to promote nuclear nonproliferation, limits on missile development, conventional arms control, and human rights. Washington would have a particular interest in preventing North Korea from turning into a global Nukes‐​R‐​Us. The U.S. government should privately indicate to Pyongyang that any sales to terrorist groups would be a casus belli risking devastating retaliation. At the same time, Washington should indicate that reform and engagement would offer far better — and safer — opportunities for financial gain.

Pyongyang remains one the world’s most malign actors. While regime change is desirable, the most important objective should be to maintain the peace. Some day North Korea’s anachronistic totalitarian hellhole will disappear. Until then, America should leave the North’s neighbors with primary responsibility for confronting the DPRK.

About the Author