After news of North Korea’s second nuclear text explosion in May 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated “we will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in the region or on us…we will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state.” Ten months later, however, there are very few signs that North Korea has been impressed by such warnings.
On the contrary, Pyongyang has since declared the successful reprocessing of 8,000 spent fuel rods, drawn attention to progress in its uranium-enrichment program, and given Special U.S. Representative for North Korean Policy Stephen W. Bosworth no indication of a resumption of negotiations any time soon. So where does the international community go with North Korea from here?
In January, North Korea called for the removal of sanctions and the conclusion of a peace treaty with the U.S as preconditions to making any commitment towards denuclearization. However, because the latter demand is a nonstarter for the U.S. and the former Washington’s primary means of leverage over Pyongyang, it seems that substantively, this impasse is likely to continue for a long time. Yet this doesn’t seem to be bothering the Obama administration that much, as it appears in no hurry to restart the Six Party Talks.
Leon Sigal describes Washington’s lackadaisical approach as a deliberate policy of ‘strategic patience’. The idea here is that the Obama administration is in no hurry to start talks because the ‘pressure of sanctions and air and naval inspections is working and will force North Korea back to the negotiating table.’
Similarly, Scott Snyder points out that Washington won’t now rush to engage North Korea as it has in the past because the U.S ‘can’t want denuclearization more than the North Koreans.’ According to this latter interpretation, it would seem that Special Representative Bosworth’s recent visit to Beijing should be understood as a U.S effort to persuade China to capitalize on its close relationship with North Korea with the goal of influencing a genuine change in Pyongyang’s thinking. This in turn could bring the DPRK back to the negotiating table on U.S terms. That Bosworth’s visit occurred at a time when China-DPRK ties show signs of strengthening, as evident by a recent flurry of high level diplomatic contact and through continued speculation of an imminent Kim Jong-Il visit to Beijing, is thus no surprise.
If the U.S is indeed pursuing a wait-and-see policy with the DPRK, then it is not clear when the stalemate will be broken. Indeed, unless the roots of the insecurity felt by North Korea (which have been driving the nuclear program since its inception) are credibly addressed, it’s hard to see how Pyongyang would ever be motivated to denuclearize. As Victor Cha put it at a recent event at the Hudson Institute, complicating matters is that even if the international community were able to assuage all of North Korea’s external security concerns, it by definition would still feel insecure.
If reports suggesting a return to talks in April actually come true, they probably won’t be meaningful, as North Korea would likely rejoin only as a gesture to China. In this context it is therefore important that policymakers consider some of the long-term effects that their ‘strategic patience’ may have.
As arms exports have constituted such a large part of North Korea’s economy for so long, it’s easy to understand the allure of sanctions as a means to squeeze the regime and its current and would-be business partners. But a report recently issued by International Crisis Group (ICG) suggests these sanctions could be counterproductive. According to the report, sanctions are making Pyongyang increasingly desperate to counteract the economic pain they’re causing, as evidenced by the implementation of various stop gap measures, including efforts to rejuvenate a lucrative inter-Korean tourist project in DPRK territory and the courting of possible investment from U.S business envoys. The report warns that as North Korea’s desperation increases, the likelihood that it will engage in riskier and more provocative behavior will also increase.
As potential sources of income dry up, the appeal of selling to terrorists becomes more attractive. The ICG report notes that, ‘even if Kim Jong-il and his inner circle are risk averse and unwilling to sell WMD or WMD-related materials and technology, unauthorised sales could occur at lower levels of authority’. The report also cautions that the dire economic conditions imposed by the sanctions could, in combination with the many other ‘mini-crises’ that currently bedevil the regime, snowball into a major humanitarian crisis or possible coup d’etat. The instability caused by either of these events could also lead to North Korean-origin WMD-usable materials falling into the wrong hands.
Another problem with “strategic patience” is that even if none of the ICG’s warnings come true, the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities will only continue to increase over time. Despite incredible economic hardship, North Korea continues to inch towards a nuclear ICBM capability whilst working hard to increase its stockpile of fissile materials. The longer this problem is left to fester, the more feckless statements along the lines of ‘we won’t accept North Korea as a nuclear state’ will become.
Or perhaps such rhetoric is mere window dressing to cover what U.S. policymakers have already come to accept: We can’t prevent a nuclear North Korea.