While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is busy trying to find a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear problem, our further Eastern “rogue state” foe is cruising under the radar. North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s nearly three-year tenure has been marked by an expansion of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear program.
The supreme leader’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was supposed to be a moderating force to his young and unpredictable nephew, but, Kim Jung Un executed Song-thaek along with his entire family in January 2014. What’s more, Kim has been missing for an entire month while he claims to be “suffering for his people.”
So, what exactly is the Obama administration’s strategy regarding this rogue state with an extra-rogue leader?
On February 29, 2012, North Korea agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment program and long-range missile testing in exchange for food aid. This “Leap Day Deal” failed, though, when North Korea launched a satellite into orbit in order to commemorate the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung. After that, the Obama administration reverted back to the “strategic patience” approach laid out by former Secretary of State Clinton. This strategy implies that if North Korea wants concessions, they’ve got to make the first move.
It is also a formula for doing nothing.
North Korea’s nuclear program, however, seems to be fundamentally non-negotiable. Former South Korean national security advisory Chun Yung-woo is convinced that the North Korean regime would prefer to collapse with its nuclear weapons than to try and survive without them. The South Korean military estimates that North Korea has fired over 110 projectiles since January 2014 – including eight Scud missiles and seven ultra-precision high-performance tactical rockets, to name a few.
North Korea justifies its production of nuclear weapons based on U.S. posture in the region. During his recent speech to the UN General Assembly last week, North Korean foreign minister Ri Su Yong said, “The hostile policy, nuclear threat, and stifling strategy pursued by the United States for more than half a century inevitably resulted in the decision of nuclear weapons state of the DPRK (sic).”
To add fuel to the fire, this summer, a propaganda video of North Korea launching a cruise missile identical to Russia’s Kh-35 was released. North Koreans likely bought the missile from Russia, in violation of UN sanctions against North Korea, or from a third party. It seems as though the era of cruise missile ubiquity is upon us.
With North Korea’s well-oiled propaganda machine, recent uptick in missile launches, and its new acquisition of the Kh-35 cruise missile, it is time to revisit our passive political strategy toward the not-so-hermit country. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is–albeit dangerous–small, and certainly bigger than Iran’s non-existent arsenal. A move away from strategic patience and towards strategic engagement would better advance U.S. national security interests.
As nuclear expert Jeffery Lewis said in a recent article, “North Korea is an egregious violator of human rights armed with nuclear weapons – but since we are not willing to use force to fix that little inconvenience, we have to talk to them.”
Sarah Tully is a research intern at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. She has her master’s degree in Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asian Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.