Last week the Council on Foreign Relations released a Task Force report suggesting that the current U.S policy of ‘strategic patience’ offers a ‘time time frame for achieving denuclearization…so vague that there is a significant risk that [it] will result in acquiescence to North Korea’s nuclear status as a fait accompli.’ Echoing a frustration shared by many Korea watchers, the report describes the current administration’s efforts toward the objective of denuclearization in North Korea as ‘halfhearted’. It warns that Washington must up its game and deal with the policy challenges presented by North Korea, ranked according to their fundamental importance: 1) preventing DPRK nuclear proliferation to others; 2) rolling back the nuclear program; and 3) integrating the isolated nation into the international community.
In order to deal with these issues the Task Force first identifies and reviews four policy options for the current administration: (1) explicitly recognizing and acquiescing to a nuclear North Korea; (2) containing and managing the problem; (3) attempting to roll back the program and; (4) pursuing regime change. The report suggests that while the current policy of ‘strategic patience’ is most similar to option 2, it is now time to pursue this in combination with option 3, including ‘a stepped-up combination of sanctions and incentives designed to make North Korea abandon its nuclear programs’.
While many will welcome the timeliness of the report and its rightful critique of current policy, it is not clear how the proposed combination of policy options 2 and 3 can offer Washington any new leverage over Pyongyang…
This is especially so in light of the recommendation that ‘the United States should continue to make it clear to North Korea that there is no prospect of diplomatic normalization without denuclearization’. Indeed, setting one’s desired outcome as a precondition to providing the other side with any real benefits has so far proved an ineffective route to realizing positive results. By advocating the status quo of delaying normalization until after denuclearization, it is hard to see what of the reports’ suggested interim ‘inducements’ would actually motivate North Korea to get rid of its weapons – after all it is technically still at war with the U.S, and continuously argues that it needs its nuclear deterrent to prevent U.S attack.
Thus the reports’ recommendations all sound very familiar – bandage the gunshot wound with a small plaster (non-proliferation and denuclearization with cargo inspections and export controls), get out the sticks and carrots (sanctions / aid and cultural exchanges), then hope that the Koreans will change their tune. This will not, and has never worked.
While aid is often welcomed, the nature of the regime in the DPRK means cultural exchanges will only ever be inbound (sending its nationals abroad is not in the regimes interest). The best carrot is thus diplomacy, pursued genuinely and not simply as a reward for good behaviour. After all – diplomacy does not just mean engaging with friends; it also requires engagement with countries with which one has disagreements, to seek outcomes of mutual benefit to both parties. And while engagement between the U.S and North Korea has borne little fruit, this should not be viewed as a justification to delay new and credible negotiations that could ultimately break the current impasse.
The report is correct in noting that the Obama administration has so far made little effort to negotiate or liaise with the North Koreans in any meaningful way. While the President may well have had plans to do so, it’s evident that North Korea’s long-range rocket launch on 5 April 2009 and its second nuclear test on May 25 2009 made it nigh politically impossible to do so. But to characterize this belligerent period as a North Korean effort to place ‘every possible obstacle in the way of renewed dialogue’, as the report does, is to misrepresent the reality of U.S.-North Korea diplomacy in the run up the 2008 presidential election.
In describing these months the report suggests that the situation Obama inherited followed ‘last-ditch efforts on the part of the George W. Bush administration to convince the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to accept international verification of its nuclear facilities as part of a February 2007 implementing agreement under the six- party framework’. But this description of events fails to point out that North Korea had no obligation to verify any of its facilities under Phase Two of the Six Party Talks.
At Phase Two, when Pyongyang submitted an 18,000 page declaration of its plutonium activities in June 2008, the U.S was in return supposed to delist North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terror. Instead of doing this, Washington demanded that before it could remove North Korea from the list, Pyongyang should accept intrusive inspections of its declared facilities – a significant and retrospective modification of the February 2007 agreement. These ‘last-ditch efforts’ thus amounted to last-minute goalpost shifting. Condoleezza Rice even admitted as much in June 2008, saying that “what we’ve done, in a sense, is move up issues that were to be taken up in phase three, like verification, like access to the reactor, into phase two”. And when Washington did finally remove North Korea from the state sponsors of terror list in October 2008, it did so in the context of simultaneously suspending energy aid until North Korea accepted the proposed verification protocol.
Unfortunately, the CFR report makes no mention of these significant u-turns in policy. In this author’s view, they are a major reason why relations deteriorated post-2008. While North Korea’s nuclear programme is once again continuing unchecked and the country has reverted to engaging in reckless behaviour, it nevertheless continues to maintain that it is still committed to denuclearization and wants ‘a specific and reserved form of dialogue’ (read bilateral, with the United States). Consequently, it seems clear that any effort to denuclearize North Korea must be pursued with this in mind – and as such engagement and diplomatic normalization should be implemented in tandem with initial steps in other areas, such as disablement and dismantlement. Reserving them as the final reward in contrast, will achieve little – if anything.
As Stephen Haggard and Susan L. Shirk aptly point out in the ‘Additional and Dissenting Views’ section, ‘[this] report wrongly suggests that these policy measures need to be rank ordered, when they should be under- taken in combination. Engagement is a crucial long-run element of any strategy toward North Korea if we are to gradually transform its economy and society and thereby improve the welfare of its people and change its stance toward the world.’