Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, February 21, 2013

America's Role in the North Korea Standoff

As expected, on February 12, North Korea went ahead with a nuclear test, one that experts believe was higher powered and more explosive than the two previous ones. And now, word is surfacing that North Korea might be prepping for a fourth nuclear test. At this point, it seems fairly clear that North Korea's nuclear capabilities are growing, becoming more advanced and sophisticated, and that young Kim Jong Un embraces the same type of provocative foreign policies as his father. Here, in the States, there is considerable concern that North Korea poses a looming direct threat against America.

To head off this threat, the U.S. has largely relied on regional six-party talks, though these have have occurred only sporadically and led nowhere. Indeed, getting a nuclear deal done--one that's verifiable and enforceable--with North Korea has been a perplexing and elusive goal for Washington, dating back to the Clinton administration. If Team Obama wants to break this trend and achieve a diplomatic triumph, it must recognize certain obstacles and limitations it faces. Below are three to consider.
1. The U.S. doesn't have leverage over North Korea. There's no relationship, which means America doesn't have political influence over North Korea, can't cut anything off (like aid, arms, etc.), or credibly make promises to sway Pyongyang. The U.S. has to go through international means to punish North Korea, and those mechanisms are often circumvented or watered down by third parties.
2. The U.S. can try to relaunch the six-party talks or, even better, pursue a joint Sino-American approach, as I previously suggested and still believe could, eventually, lead to a durable solution, but must be aware of the following. China has leverage over North Korea, but is very wary about putting too much pressure on Pyongyang. Beijing doesn't want to risk destabilizing the North Korean government.
3. Additionally, China tends to look the other way when North Korea lashes out at the world (missile tests, nuke tests, 2010 aggression.) Oh sure, from time to time, China verbally protests against various North Korea actions, but rarely, if ever, follows up on these complaints. Put simply, Beijing doesn't punish North Korea for flagrant actions. China merely offers empty words. To America's chagrin, this is another sign that China is more focused and concerned about its own self-interests than acting as a "responsible stakeholder" in the international community.

So right now, this is what we're left with: sticks, led by the U.S., aren't working, as they only escalate tensions on the peninsula and embolden North Korea to carry out further provocative acts. Carrots, when offered, work only marginally better than sticks. Just ask the Clinton administration how successful the 1994 Agreed Framework, which was based on American concessions, turned out to be. Unfortunately, China is not going to be a reliable partner on this issue, at least not anytime soon. As a result, there's no reason for Washington to pin its hopes on China "getting the message" on North Korea and saving the day. Furthermore, the six-party talks, much-hyped by the Bush administration, have gone nowhere for years.

The U.S. should not be content to let the status quo remain in effect for years to come. It's an unstable situation. Inter-Korea tensions are high and show no sign of abating. Countries in region, including South Korea and Japan, feel threatened and are more insecure, leading them to begin thinking about ways to fortify and enhance their national defenses. And North Korea, with its young, unelected leader, is fixated on showing toughness and resolve. In this combustible environment, brinksmanship is a risky game.
It's high time for the U.S. to try a different track. It's not enough to primarily rely on the Swedes (America's conduit in North Korea; the U.S. doesn't have an embassy there) or South Korea or Japan or other regional actors, or on satellite imagery, for information about North Korea. The U.S. should take matters into its own hands. In short, it's a good time to move to higher level, more intense diplomacy to get a better handle on North Korean goals, interests, redlines, domestic constraints, and more.

To be sure, it's awfully difficult to formulate an effective North Korea policy without knowing what exactly the U.S. is dealing with. Knowing primarily North Korea's policy outputs, that it's irritating and aggressive, isn't enough. It's behavior could be driven by lots of different sources; it could want lots of different things. America can't continue to treat the observable symptoms; it must look at the underlying causes and motives of North Korean actions and formulate policies in response to those things.

On the plus side, news leaked last week that senior American officials met in private at least three times over the last two years with North Korean officials. Indeed, this is exactly the kind of diplomatic move I have in mind. Such meetings, no doubt, provided the U.S. useful information. However, a handful of meetings only go so far, and there's much more that still needs to be gleaned and internalized.

As such, the U.S. shouldn't pursue only occasional, stand-alone meetings with North Korea. As should be obvious, limited, infrequent interactions with North Korea sharply reduce the chances for any kind of diplomatic breakthrough. Instead, Washington ought to push for periodic meetings, especially ones that connect to and build upon prior meetings, involving a variety of officials working in a host of issue-areas up and down the politico-security hierarchy in both countries. Regular, face-to-face meetings can be a nice way to reduce some of the mistrust and bad blood between North Korea and the U.S. Moreover, routine, structured talks, over time, can allow enough momentum to build to get a deal done, or at least some mutual understanding on important issues.

Furthermore, there's no need to keep these meetings private, as the U.S. has seemingly done. By telling the world of such talks--whether via press briefings or news leaks--Team Obama keeps its partners in the region in the loop and communicates its seriousness of solving, once and for all, the outstanding problems between Washington (and its allies) and Pyongyang.

Of course, all of this begs the question of whether enhanced engagement is applicable to Iran, another country that's involved in a nuclear standoff with the America and its allies. Or is my recommendation only relevant to North Korea? A forthcoming blog post will address this very topic. Please stay tuned.

**A version of this post has been published by Strategic Review. You can find the article here.**

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