all the foreign policy challenges that Barack Obama inherited from
George W. Bush, North Korea may prove the most intractable. Perceptions
held by many South Koreans--and many in American academic circles--that
President Obama would take a dramatically different approach toward
Pyongyang, including an embrace of direct summit diplomacy, raised
unrealistic expectations for a sea change in the U.S. strategy for
North Korean denuclearization. Similarly, many also interpreted North
Korea's abstention from criticizing the United States in its
authoritative New Year's Day editorial as a preliminary signal that Pyongyang was reaching out to Washington.
this early point in the new U.S. Administration, there appear to be no
breakthroughs on the horizon. There are no easy answers to the problem
of North Korea's continuing nuclear program. Neither the
confrontational approach of the first six years of the Bush
Administration nor the virtually unconditional engagement strategy of
the final two Bush years achieved success.
The Six-Party Talks
should continue, but should not be the only venue through which the
U.S. engages North Korea. The U.S. may achieve greater success by
changing the paradigm through adding additional lanes to the North
Korea policy road. In implementing an expanded policy, the U.S. should
integrate a comprehensive diplomatic approach with accompanying
pressure, and should closely coordinate with allies South Korea and
Japan. Leverage could be derived from energetically enforcing existing
multilateral sanctions, expanding the Proliferation Security
Initiative, and demanding compliance with hard-fought U.N. Security
Prudence demands that all concerned parties
remember the broken promises and shattered dreams that litter the
Korean landscape. Kim Jong-il has shown great reluctance to make
concessions or achieve real progress on diplomatic agreements with the
United States or his neighbors. Pyongyang has repeatedly dashed the
hopes of those advocating engagement. Perceived movement is habitually
followed by threats, cancellations, and demands.
negotiations are currently in a stalemate because North Korea rejects a
verification protocol the Bush Administration claimed Pyongyang had
previously accepted. Pyongyang's response--the vitriolic attacks and
near-severing of relations when South Korea and Japan merely stipulated
conditionality and reciprocity--bodes ill for those who hope that North
Korea will accept future requirements arising from the Six-Party Talks.
problem with North Korea's nuclear weapons program must be viewed as
being embedded in the deeper problem the regime poses to the
international system. What makes the problem so intractable and
dangerous is the nature of the North Korean regime. Its self-imposed
isolation, its horrid human rights record, its easily stirred state of
belligerency toward South Korea, the massive conventional forces it
maintains on the edge of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and its record
of missile and nuclear technology proliferation gives a chilling
context to the nuclear threat.
Of course, the United States'
number one priority regarding the Korean peninsula must be the
denuclearization of the North. But that must be part of a broader
approach that addresses the entire set of problems posed by the regime.
North Korea's Nuclear Strategy
has historically shown itself to be patient during U.S. leadership
transitions, parsing the selection of Administration officials and
their statements for indications of potential policy changes. North
Korea typically first seeks to attain its goals through formal and
informal diplomatic means, manipulating multiple parallel channels of
engagement, and playing one opponent against the other to gain
Despite welcoming Barack Obama's election,
North Korea resorted to brinksmanship tactics after indications that
the new U.S. Administration would not be as conciliatory as Pyongyang
had anticipated. During his confirmation hearing, nominated Deputy
Secretary of Defense William Lynn called Pyongyang a continuing threat,
while during her hearing, nominated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
affirmed the U.S. would continue to demand the complete and verifiable
denuclearization of North Korea.
In an attempt to influence the
formulation of the Obama Administration's North Korea policy, North
Korea asserted in mid-January that it would denuclearize only after the
establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the U.S., the
cessation of Washington's "hostile policy," and the removal of the U.S.
protective nuclear umbrella over South Korea. Pyongyang has not defined
the objectionable components of the U.S. approach, but it could include
cessation of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, downsizing or
removal of U.S. Forces Korea, a formal non-aggression pact, or
abrogation of the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
Some analysts will
dismiss the North Korean missive as simply "negotiating through
headlines." Instead, the statements should be interpreted as a shot
across the bow of the Obama Administration. Such statements are
consistent with numerous remarks by North Korean officials that
Pyongyang has little interest in abandoning its nuclear weapons. The
rhetoric reflects standard North Korean negotiating tactics of raising
the ante, deflecting criticism of its own noncompliance by blaming U.S.
actions, insisting on equality of conditions in response to unequal
violations, and renegotiating the existing agreement.
tactical negotiating level, Pyongyang seeks to undermine the U.S. push
for a rigorous verification accord by demanding North Korean inspectors
in South Korean and U.S. military facilities as well as on U.S. ships
and submarines. On a more strategic level, North Korea sent a clear
signal that it will not adopt a more accommodating stance post-Bush.
Contrary to the unrealistically high expectations that the new Obama
Administration will be able to achieve dramatic acceleration in North
Korean denuclearization and an improvement in U.S.- North Korean
relations, the Six-Party Talks will continue to have a tumultuous
Isolating the U.S. from Its Asian Allies.
North Korea has long sought to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its
Asian allies. North Korea tries to appeal to the South Korean populace
by blaming the U.S. troop presence and joint military exercises as the
principal impediments to peaceful Korean reunification. North Korea has
engaged in an all-out effort to demonize the South's Lee Myung-bak
government, blaming it for escalating inter-Korean tensions.
its effort to undermine domestic support for President Lee, Pyongyang
restricted South Korean access to the Gumgang joint economic zone,
unleashed witheringly harsh rhetoric against President Lee and his
principled policy toward the North, abrogated all inter-Korean
agreements, threatened military confrontation in the West Sea, and
warned of imminent war between the Koreas.
President Lee vowed
to maintain South Korea's engagement policy toward the North, but
conditioned economic, humanitarian, and political benefits on concrete
progress toward denuclearization and North Korean implementation of
political and economic reforms. Lee's policy is more consistent with
the Six-Party Talks goal of using coordinated multilateral diplomatic
measures to push for Pyongyang's implementation of its nuclear
North Korea also seeks to exclude Japan from the
Six-Party Talks, accusing Tokyo of being an impediment to progress.
Tokyo has conditioned the establishment of formal diplomatic relations
and providing Japanese assistance in the nuclear negotiations on
resolving uncertainties over the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped by
North Korea during the 1970s and 1980s. Tokyo lost considerable
negotiating power on the abductee issue when the U.S. prematurely
removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in
October 2008 in return for a flawed verification protocol which
Pyongyang later rejected.
This U.S. action angered Japan and led
it to question U.S. willingness to address Japanese security concerns.
Tokyo felt particularly betrayed by the Bush Administration's breaking
of President Bush's personal pledge to keep North Korea on the
terrorist list until progress was made on the abductee issue. National
Security Council Senior Asia Director Dennis Wilder clearly stated in
April 2007 that "We aren't going to de-link the abductee issue from the
state sponsor of terrorism issue,"  and emphasized that President Bush would personally reaffirm that position to then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Playing the China Card.It
has long been an article of faith among China watchers and U.S.
policymakers that the road to Pyongyang runs through Beijing, meaning
that the North Korean nuclear impasse could be resolved if only China
made use of its considerable clout. During its first term, the Bush
Administration deferred responsibility for North Korean
denuclearization to China, repeatedly praising Beijing for its efforts.
Korea's missile and nuclear tests in 2006, however, dramatically
exposed China's inability or unwillingness to exercise significant
influence over Pyongyang. This should not have come as a surprise since
Beijing was previously unable to compel North Korea to give up either
of its nuclear weapons programs, despite having identified it as a core
strategic national interest of China. The Chinese leadership also
failed to convince Kim Jong-il to implement Chinese-style economic
reform, despite a decade of entreaties and aid to assist Pyongyang in
transforming its economy.
Despite North Korea's provocations,
China remains averse to confronting its recalcitrant neighbor for fear
of provoking further escalatory behavior or triggering regime
instability. China remains conflicted in its policy toward North Korea
between those who advocate strong solidarity with Beijing's Communist
ally and those pushing for improving relations with the U.S. by
distancing itself from Pyongyang.
North Korea takes advantage of
Beijing's position by using China as a buffer against international
pressure tactics and to diffuse implementation of punitive measures,
undercut U.S. policy, and constrain real progress in the Six-Party
Talks. When confronted with North Korean stonewalling, Beijing
repeatedly called upon the U.S. to show greater "flexibility," for
example, to offer even more concessions.
Likelihood of Increased Tensions
North Korea concludes it has been too long ignored or has not achieved
its objectives through direct engagement, it will initiate a carefully
calibrated escalation of tensions. Kim Jong-il will be emboldened by
perceptions that Washington does not have a military option due to
Seoul's proximity to the DMZ, the overextension of U.S. military
forces, and a potential face-off with Iran.
signals its intent to engage in provocative behavior by increasing the
bellicosity and authoritativeness of its official propaganda. Potential
options include restarting operations at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor,
prohibiting actions in the Joint Security Area, extensive out-of-cycle
military training exercises near the DMZ or the maritime demarcation
line in the West Sea, a long-range missile test, or preparations for a
second nuclear test.
North Korea may conduct such actions in
conjunction with diplomatic entreaties to gain additional concessions
for returning to the status quo. Pyongyang could also choose to
deflect attention from its noncompliance with denuclearization
requirements by re-engaging South Korea or Japan or switching to
another diplomatic venue such as offering to resume missile
The Threatening Nature of the North Korean Regime
getting Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons programs has been a
preeminent U.S. strategic objective, North Korea poses additional risks
to its neighbors. North Korea has an estimated 600 Scud missiles that
can reach any part of South Korea as well as 200 No-Dong missiles that
can strike Japan. These missiles may be capable of delivering nuclear,
chemical, and biological weapons. North Korea has forward-deployed 70
percent of its ground forces within 90 miles of the DMZ. In addition to
three conventional corps alongside the DMZ, Pyongyang has deployed two
mechanized corps, an armor corps, and an artillery corps.
North Korean government is actively engaged in a wide range of illegal
activities, including counterfeiting of U.S. and other countries'
currencies, money laundering, and production of illegal narcotics and
counterfeit pharmaceuticals. The U.S. government and courts have
identified North Korean complicity in manufacturing and distributing
$100 "super note" bills.
In 2005, the U.S. Treasury Department
froze North Korean accounts in a Macau bank that were used for money
laundering. Despite significantly hampering North Korean illicit
activity, the Treasury Department was forced to back away from the
enforcement of U.S. and international law in order to facilitate
"progress" in the Six-Party Talks.
North Korea has one of the
world's most brutal regimes, inflicting horrendous human rights abuses
on its citizens. The Department of State cites arbitrary imprisonment,
killings, torture, forced abortions, absence of religious freedom, and
medical experimentation on prisoners. Pyongyang operates an extensive gulag system for as many as 200,000 political prisoners.
10 years of progressive leadership, South Korea was resistant to
criticizing North Korea's human rights record out of concern it would
undermine Seoul's engagement policy. The Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun
governments were rightly castigated by the U.S. and international
community for turning a blind eye to the North Korean abuses and doing
little to facilitate the movement of North Korean refugees into the
Uncertainties over Kim Jong-il's Health
over the status of Kim Jong-il's health overshadow the Six-Party Talks
as well as engagement with North Korea on a range of issues. It is
likely that Kim suffered at least one stroke in late 2008 leading to at
least partial debilitation. Pyongyang has since responded with a series
of photos to convince the outside world the North Korean leader is
healthy. Uncertainties remain because some, if not all, of the photos
were doctored or are known to have been taken before his illness.
North Korea has not announced a formal succession plan, there are
concerns of the implications of Kim's sudden death or incapacitation.
While North Korean authorities may be ready to implement an existing
plan, the outside world remains fearful of the potential for
instability in a nuclear weapons state.
There has been great
speculation over the years over Kim's potential successor, with the
most likely candidates being one of Kim's three sons, his
brother-in-law Chang Song-taek, or a collective leadership. Regardless
of who is chosen, it is unlikely there will be any significant change
in North Korea's resistance to economic and political reform or to more
open engagement with the outside world. Nor would it be likely that
Pyongyang would be less obstructionist during the Six-Party Talks.
new leader, lacking the inherent legitimacy of Kim Jong-il or of his
father Kim Il-song, would be heavily dependent on the leadership elite,
who see their fate as directly tied to a continuation of the present
regime. They would resist any attempt at altering policy as risking
regime instability and threatening their way of life. The new leader
may have to pursue an even more hard-line policy to ensure continued
Obama's Approach to North Korea
Obama has asserted the need for "sustained, direct, and aggressive
diplomacy" with North Korea. He pledged to be "firm and unyielding in
our commitment to a non-nuclear Korean peninsula," and vowed not to
"take the military option off the table" in order to achieve "the
complete and verifiable elimination of all of North Korea's nuclear
weapons programs, as well as its past proliferation activities,
including with Syria."
stated that "sanctions are a critical part of our leverage to pressure
North Korea to act. They should only be lifted based on performance. If
the North Koreans do not meet their obligations, we should move quickly
to re-impose sanctions that have been waived, and consider new
restrictions going forward."
The Obama Administration's first official act toward North Korea was to
impose new sanctions on three North Korean companies for violating a
U.S. law aimed at curtailing the proliferation of technology related to
missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
there might be a perception of a major shift in U.S. policy, President
Obama will maintain much of the engagement strategy of the final two
years of the Bush Administration. Although President Obama may be more
willing than was President Bush to engage in senior-level diplomatic
engagement, including a potential summit with Kim Jong-il, it is
unlikely that such tactical changes will achieve verifiable North
Korean denuclearization. However direct he makes his policy, President
Obama will face the same constraints in achieving tangible progress
with North Korea as his predecessors experienced.
last two years, the Bush Administration engaged in the direct,
bilateral diplomacy with Pyongyang that the Obama Administration
advocates today. Yet there has been continued North Korean
intransigence, non-compliance, and brinksmanship. The Bush engagement
also resulted in the abandonment of important principles, including
enforcement of international law and attaining sufficient verification
measures. Nor have Six-Party Talks diplomats yet begun real
negotiations on the elimination of North Korean nuclear weapons three
years after Pyongyang agreed to do so.
Avoiding the Mistakes of the Past
President Obama assembles his foreign-policy making team and translates
vague campaign pronouncements to specific policy recommendations, he
should look to history for guidance. This history clearly advises that
he avoid several current recommendations made by a variety of
American, South Korean, and Japanese experts. Specifically, the
- Not double down on a losing hand.
The limited action-for-action strategy of the Six-Party Talks has
failed; therefore, some advocate expanding the rewards to offer North
Korea an even larger deal. This is akin to urging a farmer who has lost
every hand of poker against a wily dealer to go all in and bet his
homestead in hopes of winning it all back--and more--on one hand.
- Not put the cart before the horse.
Since Kim Jong-il makes all important decisions, some believe that the
U.S. should propose a summit between Obama and Kim to avoid months of
haggling by lower-level officials. This wishful thinking is reminiscent
of the Clinton Administration, when a senior official stated, "If only
we could get the President in the same room as Kim Jong-il, the force
of Bill's personality is so strong that we'd get all of our
objectives!" A U.S.- North Korean summit without assurances of an
extensive and thoroughly verifiable denuclearization agreement would be
premature and counterproductive.
- Not provide concessions to appease North Korean hardliners.
North Korean intransigence has been depicted as a short-term
manifestation of a hard-line faction. In this unlikely scenario, Kim
Jong-il is really a closet capitalist who has somehow fallen under the
influence of evil Korean "neocons." This is despite ample evidence that
Kim rules with an iron fist and tolerates no dissent. North Korean
negotiators, like used-car salesmen, are always happy to promise to
"work with you," provided you cough up "just a few more" concessions to
convince Kim that they have reached a good deal.
- Not be ambiguous in order to achieve "progress."
The Clinton and Bush Administrations both ran into trouble when they
acquiesced to North Korean demands for vague text instead of clear
requirements and timelines. Deferring rather than resolving issues
provides a false sense of advancement and allows Pyongyang to exploit
loopholes and avoid its denuclearization commitments.
- Not sacrifice U.S. allies on the altar of denuclearization.
South Korea and Japanbecame increasingly suspicious of U.S. eagerness
to achieve progress in Six-Party Talks regardless of the cost to the
alliance. The Bush Administration's premature removal of North Korea
from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and its unwillingness
to integrate South Korean and Japanese security concerns into the
Six-Party Talks strained bilateral relations.
What the U.S. Should Do
Getting Nuclear Negotiations Right.
For the United States and its allies, addressing the North Korean
nuclear threat must remain the paramount national security objective in
Northeast Asia. As President Obama develops his approach to North
Korea, the U.S. should:
- Affirm that its objective is
the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea. President
Obama should state unequivocally that Washington will not accept North
Korea as a nuclear weapons state. Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton's confirmation-hearing testimony properly affirmed this goal,
and also emphasized the requirements for complete and verifiable
denuclearization as well as a full accounting by Pyongyang of its
uranium-based nuclear weapons program and proliferation activities.
(Her subsequently expressed doubts about the existence of a North
Korean uranium program were factually wrong and misguided.)
- Develop, in conjunction with North Korea's neighbors, a strategic blueprint
clearly defining the desired end-state, objectives, and requirements
for all parties, as well as a roadmap delineating the linkages,
schedule, and metrics for achieving measurable results.
- Insist that North Korea comply with its existing Six-Party Talks agreements
and not allow Pyongyang to use brinksmanship and threats to redefine
the parameters of the negotiations. Existing North Korean requirements
include: providing a data declaration on its nuclear weapons inventory,
uranium weapons program, and proliferation activities; disabling all
nuclear facilities; and accepting a sufficiently rigorous and intrusive
verification protocol that meets international standards.
that subsequent Six-Party Talks joint statements are sufficiently
detailed to prevent North Korea from exploiting loopholes in order to avoid full compliance.
- Resist being drawn into a debate over whether North Korea has made the "strategic decision" to give up its nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang has signed three Six-Party Talks agreements that commit it to
full denuclearization. Washington must make clear that anything less
than full compliance by North Korea constitutes a violation that puts
Pyongyang into jeopardy of not receiving promised benefits.
- Reject North Korean claims that the U.S.'s "hostile policy" is to blame for the Six-Party Talks impasse.
The President and Secretary of State should emphasize that U.S. Forces
Korea is a direct response to North Korea's 1950 invasion of, and
continued belligerent threats to, Seoul. The U.S. should insist that
Pyongyang fully comply with its denuclearization commitments before
initiating any discussions of conventional force reductions or a peace
treaty formally ending the Korean War.
- Emphasize that North
Korea's refusal of dialogue with Seoul and Tokyo prevents South Korea
and Japan from providing economic and diplomatic benefits called for in
the Six-Party Talks process as well as preventing bilateral development assistance.
- Strengthen its alliances with South Korea and Japan.
Washington should continue military realignment of its forces in
Northeast Asia and continue to work toward broader strategic alliances
with South Korea and Japan as well as ensuring close coordination of
the policies of all parties in the Six-Party Talks.
Expanding Policy Beyond the Six-Party Talks
their preeminent importance, the Six-Party Talks need not be, nor
should be, the only focus of North Korea policy. There are other areas
of concern, as well as other opportunities for transforming the North
Washington should adopt a comprehensive, integrated approach with Pyongyang by adding lanes to the policy road.
- An extensive yet conditional approach
would be to offer Pyongyang a path to greater economic, developmental,
and diplomatic benefits while still insisting on conditionality,
reciprocity, and transparency. New initiatives should not be allowed to
deflect attention from Pyongyang's denuclearization requirements.
Negotiating venues should be pursued bilaterally or multilaterally depending on their impact on a country's national interests.
- Inter-Korean negotiations should be handled bilaterally by Seoul and Pyongyang and be based on the 1991 Basic Agreement.
U.S., South Korea, and Japan should initiate multilateral negotiations
to eliminate North Korea's missile threats to its neighbors. Such
discussions should constrain, and ideally eliminate, missile
development, deployment, and proliferation rather than being merely a quid pro quo agreement of cash payments in exchange for Pyongyang not exporting missile technology.
- The U.S., China, North Korea, and South Korea could begin discussions on a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War
once North Korea's nuclear and missile threats to its neighbors are
eliminated. An inviolable precondition for such negotiations would be
the inclusion of conventional force reductions and confidence-building
measures, such as prior notification of major military deployments,
movements, and exercises.
Not all forms of engagement should be linked to the Six-Party Talks.
- Humanitarian and development assistance should be divorced from the nuclear negotiations.
Levels of humanitarian aid should be determined following extensive
in-country assessments of North Korean needs. Provision of humanitarian
aid and development assistance should be subject to rigorous monitoring
- International development assistance should be subject to the standard rules of international financial institutions.
Initial contributions should be project-based while any extensive,
long-term assistance should be tied to North Korean economic reform.
enforcement, implementation of U.N. resolutions, and efforts to combat
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missiles are not
negotiable. It was a grave mistake on the part of the Bush
Administration to allow Pyongyang to dictate an abrogation of enforcing
U.S. and international laws in exchange for North Korea's return to the
The U.S. should denounce North
Korea's human rights abuses and take steps to improve living conditions
for its citizens. The U.S. should:
- Challenge North Korea to improve its abysmal human rights record through exposure at international fora, including at the U.N.;
- Call on Beijing to abandon repatriation of North
Korean defectors and allow visits by the U.N. rapporteur on North
Korean human rights to investigate refugee conditions in northeast
- Engage with China, Mongolia, and Southeast Asian nations to determine ways to facilitate travel by North Korean refugees;
- Support Japanese and South Korean efforts to secure full accounting and return of all abductees and prisoners of war currently languishing in North Korea; and
- Condition establishment of diplomatic relations with North Korea on the introduction of a Helsinki Accord-type process to ensure human rights improvements.
The U.S. should expand public diplomacy to promote greater exposure of North Korean officials and citizens to the outside world.
Increased North Korean exposure to information is a useful long-term
means to begin the transformation of the nature of the regime, as took
place in Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
- Facilitate formal student and cultural exchange programs.
broadcasting services, such as by Radio Free Asia, and distribution of
leaflets, DVDs, computer flash drives, documentaries, and movies into
North Korea through both overt and covert means. It is critical to
aggressively pursue distribution methods, such as airborne leaflets, to
introduce information into North Korea about the true nature of its
regime in addition to "feel good" initiatives like the New York
Philharmonic's visit to Pyongyang last year.
It has never been a question of whether to engage North Korea, but of how
to do so. It is critical to understand that engagement is a means
rather than an end,and it is equally important to control how
engagement is applied. For the time being, the U.S. should continue
diplomatic attempts to reduce the North Korean nuclear threat. The
likelihood for success, though, is not high. Pyongyang's recent demands
for new conditions in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons run
counter to three Six-Party Talks agreements and threaten to derail the
nuclear negotiations once again.
While the U.S. should continue
to strive for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear threat,
employing a combination of all instruments of national power, the Obama
Administration should also accept that there simply may be no set of
inducements to ensure North Korean abandonment of its nuclear weapons.
There is a growing sense that Pyongyang's antics and stalling tactics
are not merely negotiating ploys, but instead are designed to achieve
international acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power. North
Korean officials have repeatedly indicated that is precisely their
The U.S. should establish non-flexible deadlines so
that Pyongyang cannot continue to drag out negotiations. In addition,
it would be prudent for Washington to initiate contingency plans with
South Korea and Japan should the Six-Party Talks no longer seem to be a
viable policy option.
Equally important, the Obama
Administration should give new context to the nuclear issue by
expanding the North Korea policy agenda. North Korea's nuclear and
associated weapons programs should remain the most critical focus of
U.S. policy. But the problem with North Korea is bigger than that. The
United States should actively address the North Korean problem across
the range of threats it poses to the international system. This way,
the U.S. can confront the problem more comprehensively and
fundamentally, as well as in mutually reinforcing ways. Adding lanes to
the road will improve the prospects for success in every lane.
"Joint New Year Editorial Issued," KCNA, January 1, 2009, at http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2009/200901/news01/20090101-02ee.
html (March 17, 2009).