Dealing with North Korea always leaves a sense of déjà vu. Whether Pyongyang is making threats, proposing negotiations, pocketing concessions, or violating agreements, the U.S. and its allies have heard it all before. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is perfectly predictable in an unpredictable sort of way.
Dealing with the DPRK will never be easy. The best policy would be one of containment, with the U.S. stepping back and placing more responsibility on the North’s neighbors to handle the problem child.
The North’s latest provocation was last week’s “satellite” launch. The missile broke up and fell into the ocean, leading to a South Korean attempt to find the pieces. The fiasco left Pyongyang looking like a paper tiger, but Seoul warns that a third nuclear test may be next.
North Korea’s missile shot—formally an effort to place a weather satellite into orbit—came just weeks after the Obama administration cut a deal to provide food assistance in return for a halt in nuclear tests and uranium enrichment. Pyongyang also was expected to return to the so-called Six Party talks with the objective of eliminating the North’s nuclear program.
It is probably less painful to have a root canal than dicker with a North Korean diplomat.
That agreement is now kaput. At least the Obama administration did not have high expectations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the pact “A modest first step in the right direction,” and the effort probably was a useful probe of Pyongyang’s intentions. The administration’s mistake was to believe that this “modest first step” was worth paying for. Now Washington looks credulous or even incompetent, while the DPRK again has won worldwide media coverage.
There is disagreement over whether North Korea consciously violated the latest accord or genuinely didn’t believe that it had agreed to forgo missile launches. But no matter: President Barack Obama denounced Pyongyang’s “bad behavior” and negotiations with the North have hit another dead end. Tomorrow the DPRK could collapse or the new rulers in Pyongyang could embark upon a radical program of perestroika, but unfortunately the West must act on the assumption that the country will remain a Stalinist fossil for many years to come.
Moreover, the North remains in the midst of an uncertain power transition. Kim Jong-un, the roughly (we aren’t sure) 29-year-old young son and grandson of North Korea’s prior two dictators, has received the titles and other trappings of power, though it is not clear how much authority he actually wields. Grandfather Kim Il-sung took decades to transfer power to Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-il was barely two years into a similar shift to Kim Jong-un when the former died.
Pyongyang’s corridors of power are filled with family members, party officials, and military officers who have little reason to turn power over to an untested youngster who lacked the time and perhaps skill necessary to make the system his servant. Even his uncle and aunt, apparently tasked by Kim Jong-il to help shepherd the son along, are far better positioned to grab supreme power, if not formal leadership. Nor are senior military officers likely to play sycophant to the recently minted “four star general.”
Moreover, the leadership may be focused on internal developments for another reason. 2012 is the centenary of the birth of founding dictator Kim Il-sung. Major celebrations were held yesterday on his birthday. Kim Jong-il had set 2012 as the year North Korea would demonstrate that it was prosperous and powerful. The supposed satellite launch was just one of many steps likely to be taken in coming months to promote this end.
The allied objective long has been a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. Indeed, leaders on both sides of the Pacific often have talked of refusing to accept a nuclear North Korea, insisting that the DPRK’s possession of nuclear weapons was simply unacceptable.
It is a worthy goal, but probably unobtainable. There has never been any evidence that Pyongyang was inclined to give up whatever weapons it has obtained at great cost. Doing so would leave the North vulnerable to a foreign attempt at regime change, eliminate the need for any other nation to pay any attention to what is a small and impoverished nation, and lose a useful tool for financial extortion.
Abandoning nuclear weapons also would directly contradict the Kim family’s “military first” policy which solidified political support from the armed forces. Kim Jong-il may have had the power to overrule the military’s wishes but apparently was not inclined to do so. Kim Jong-un almost certainly does not have such authority, and no one hoping to survive, let alone rise, in North Korean politics today likely will challenge the military on the issue. A collective leadership where competition for power is intense and the outcome is open inevitably will limit negotiating options with the West.
There still may be room for an agreement—to, for instance, stop any further plutonium production or uranium enrichment. Simply freezing the North’s nuclear program would be worthwhile and would ease fears of proliferation. Still, no one in Pyongyang would accept such limits out of the goodness of their hearts. The price for any pact, especially including verification inspections, would be high. And it is hard to imagine a consensus arising in Pyongyang so long as the leadership remains unsettled.
Yet there is no alternative to negotiation. Six years ago, before becoming deputy defense secretary, Ashton Carter advocated military strikes on North Korea, but the administration does not appear to be considering such a policy, and rightly so. Military action likely would trigger another Korean War, with hideous consequences for all concerned.
Of course, Pyongyang might do nothing in response to a U.S. attack, but more likely would view military action as a prelude to coercive regime change. Then it would make sense for the North to strike first, and Seoul is within range of Scuds and artillery. While neither China nor Russia likely would intervene on the DPRK’s behalf, starting a war on their borders would greatly complicate Washington’s relationship with both nations.
Sanctions are everyone’s preferred tool, but the North Korean leadership is willing to impose enormous hardship on the North Korean people to pursue its political ends. Moreover, sanctions won’t be effective without Beijing’s acquiescence. And so far the People’s Republic of China is committed to stability on the peninsula.
Which leads back to negotiation. Washington should use the North’s failed launch to reemphasize the role of diplomacy while moving in a new direction.
It is probably less painful to have a root canal than dicker with a North Korean diplomat. Nevertheless, the DPRK appears to behave less provocatively while talking with America and South Korea, in particular. In contrast, at a time of relative isolation two years ago the North torpedoed a South Korean warship and bombarded a South Korean island. Even if talks go no where they may perform a useful role.
Thus, Washington should pursue discussions with limited expectations. Let North Korean officials talk without pressing hard for an unattainable agreement. Keep Pyongyang at the table, which it perceives as having some value, even if the process otherwise seems to be a waste of time.
At the same time, Washington should stop ostentatiously making public demands. For instance, President Obama insisted that the North drop its missile launch. His comments ensured that the North Koreans would move ahead. A disappointed statement of regret would have sufficed, followed by a conscious effort to downplay the issue. Pyongyang’s objective is to win attention and create anxiety. The U.S. should not provide the first or evidence the second. In fact, the North’s failed launch demonstrated that the event received a build-up far exceeding the stakes. After describing the satellite as the “cream” of the nation’s space technology and claiming the launch to be an “inspiring deed,” the DPRK has been profoundly embarrassed.
Moreover, Washington should suggest that the U.S. and North Korea establish consular relations. If the North wants America’s “respect,” then let it have it. In return, the American government would be free to raise any issue, from security to human rights, in what hopefully would become an ongoing dialogue. The objective would not be to argue Kim Jong-un away from totalitarian communism, but to open a small window into the DPRK, create a communication channel, and offer the prospect of expanded future ties.
At the same time, the U.S. should step back. Even if North Korea had a long-range missile that worked, Kim Jong-un & Co. would not use it against America. North Korea has a return address and the U.S. has a devastating retaliatory capacity. Kim wants his virgins in this world, not the next. None of his colleagues want to play a game of self-immolation.
Without forces in South Korea, the U.S. could stand largely aloof from the North’s antics. Washington would still worry about proliferation, but would face no direct threat of a North Korean nuclear attack, no matter how small. Unfortunately, today 27,000 Americans stationed in the South act as nuclear hostages. Yet their presence is not necessary for the ROK’s defense. Seoul enjoys a 40-1 economic and 2-1 population advantage over the North. Washington should turn responsibility for South Korea’s defense over to the South Koreans, where it long has belonged.
As the U.S. disengages militarily, it should indicate that it plans to step behind the North’s neighbors as they deal with Pyongyang. The ROK should take the lead in confronting North Korea. On questions from trade and investment to conventional deterrence, the South should be the country responding to the North. Japan also has an important role to play in both economic and security matters, since its relatively pacifist tendencies have been challenged by the DPRK’s multiple provocations.
Washington should work with both the South and Japan to develop a “grand bargain” diplomatic package for North Korea to present to Beijing. The PRC routinely calls for negotiations. The U.S. should call on China to support an allied plan offering to swap recognition, trade, and aid for denuclearization. And Washington should request Chinese support for the plan (while addressing Beijing’s fears about the economic and geopolitical costs of a North Korean collapse). The U.S. should request a commitment to squeeze investment as well as aid flows and energy shipments should the North refuse to make a deal.
If China refuses, Washington should politely indicate that the PRC will bear the burden if things go badly on the Korean peninsula. And should North Korea come calling to request aid to feed its starving population, the U.S. will point the way to Beijing.
Moreover, Washington should explain, if the North insists on creating an expansive nuclear arsenal, that the U.S. will reconsider its objection to South Korea and Japan possessing nuclear weapons. After all, it makes little sense for America to ensure that the only secondary power with nukes is the region’s most brutal and least trustworthy state. If the PRC is going to protect its discreditable ally, it should pay the full price for doing so. Chinese officials should wake up to the same nightmares as those which now disturb policymakers in America, South Korea, and Japan.
It’s déjà vu all over again, observed Yogi Berra. Such is the result of negotiating with North Korea. Washington may have no choice but to continue talking with DPRK. But the U.S. needs to step back, turning principal responsibility for the disagreeable task over to those with the most at stake, Pyongyang’s unfortunate neighbors.