We’ve seen this play before:
Act I Scene I: North Korea works on nuclear development.
Act I Scene II: The U.S. says “Woah~” Responds with engagement and/or sanctions. Signs of some “progress” become noticeable, but then, another impasse.
Act II: The U.S. gets distracted elsewhere, ignores North Korea for a few months, maybe years, slapping more sanctions every time Pyongyang engages in provocations.
Act III: North Korea tests a nuclear device and blasts missiles.
Act IV: The U.S. (and international community) resumes engagement, offers goodies for nuclear dismantlement, positive signs appear, but dialogue breaks down again.
Act V Scene I: A new U.S. administration comes in, and attempts to do something different: Ignore North Korea and blame Pyongyang for another impasse.
Act V Scene II: North Korean provocation (missiles, nuclear tests, nuclear facility tinkering, etc).
Act V Scene III: U.S. reaction: condemns, knocks on North Korea’s door, contains the situation, and then ignores some more until the next provocation.
Act VI: Repeat Acts I~V.
This is more or less how the North Korean nuclear saga has played out. For twenty years.
The Obama administration came into office saying it will “not buy the same horse twice” vowing to do things differently from his predecessor. But it doesn’t take long to recall that the Bush 43 administration took a similar path: It began with engagement in the Six-Party Talks, then turned hard-lined, and then softened its stance toward the end of its second term when it hit roadblocks in the Middle East.
The Obama administration may have begun with the extended hand, but quickly reverted to Act V: Ignore North Korea, and only react to North Korean provocations. Of course because of Pyongyang’s 2009 missile and nuclear tests.
Pyongyang is expected to test a third nuclear device. Now we’re also hearing about a light-water reactor to produce plutonium and a pilot uranium enrichment facility with 2,000 centrifuges — the tools for bomb-making. It’s a matter of time until we hear another kaboom in North Korea and witness a boost in U.S. frequent flyer miles to contain the problem once again.
Perhaps some in this town are waiting, maybe even hoping, for another nuclear test. That way, Pyongyang can deplete its plutonium stockpiles and be further isolated and squeezed, which currently seems to be a bipartisan hope. After all, there are more urgent headaches overseas: Afghanistan.
But that doesn’t solve the problem, nor does it prevent the North’s nuclear pursuits as we’re witnessing now. More nuclear testing means it’s trying to miniaturize to tip a missile. And the latest construction work at Yongbyon indicates it wants to refill its plutonium stock.
North Korea is centered on juche (self-reliance), and Hecker’s latest report shows Pyongyang turning inward once again.
We must remember that North Korean behavior is not exclusively geared toward the U.S. It’s also preparing for a leadership succession, and has a fast-approaching deadline to become a “mighty and prosperous nation by 2012.” Kim’s minions are probably working around the clock to make sure their Dear Leader is not embarrassed with empty promises in the face of his domestic (and even international) audience, and that Great Leader Kim Il-sung is revered with the utmost respect during his 100th birthday celebration.
The Obama administration has not been entirely wrong to pursue its current “strategic patience” policy — it tried sometime different, and it may have been serving its purpose. But we’re now seeing that this policy may actually be adding to the vicious cycle.
The only way this administration can truly set itself apart from previous administrations is to proactively try to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem. Yes, North Korea probably won’t surrender its nuclear ambitions under the current Kim Jong-il regime. But chances are his son Kim Jong-un won’t either.
Cracking the problem begins with persistent engagement. Talking to adversaries is usually viewed as a reward. But in North Korea’s case, we may have now witnessed that not talking is the ultimate reward – it’s granted time for nuclear development and more provocations. History has shown that when North Korea is engaged in dialogue, it refrains from provocative actions. Inaction could result in the U.S. resigning itself to accepting North Korea as a de facto nuclear weapons state. And more nuclear actors could emerge following the “Pyongyang model.”
Sure, it’s increasingly difficult to engage in backdoor diplomatic dialogue without it being leaked to the press, which would then lead to heightened expectations for a breakthrough, and then lead to sheer disappointment and criticism if that one baby step didn’t produce substantive results. If a series of talks don’t lead to progress, then the blow is even greater.
But the nuclear game will only become more difficult to beat if Washington stands idly by without directly gauging its playmate’s position. Not talking only increases the intractability of problems, and keeps the stage curtain up forever.
World history has shown that the seemingly impossible has been made possible because of aggressive and ambitious — sometimes at first idealistic — initiatives. Foreign policy should always be crafted from a realistic and pragmatic foundation. But sometimes, a sprinkle of ambition and creativity can make history.