America and the North Korean puzzle

Published : 01 May 2013

By: Brad Nelson

As expected, North Korea went ahead with an underground nuclear test on February 12, one that experts believe was higher powered and more explosive than two previous ones. And now, word has surfaced that the country might be prepping for a fourth nuclear test.

At this point, it seems fairly clear that North Korea's nuclear capabilities are growing and becoming more advanced and sophisticated, and that young Kim Jong-un embraces the same type of provocative foreign policies as his late father. In the United States, there is considerable concern that North Korea poses a looming direct threat against America.

To head off this threat, the US has largely relied on regional six-party talks, although these 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 President Barack Obama wants to break this trend and achieve a diplomatic triumph, his administration must recognize the obstacles and limitations it faces.

First off, the US doesn't have leverage over North Korea. There's no relationship whatsoever, which means America doesn't have any political influence, can't cut anything off (aid, arms, etc), or credibly make promises to sway Pyongyang. The US has to go through international mechanisms to punish North Korea, which are often circumvented or watered down by third parties.

The US can try to relaunch the six-party talks or, even better, pursue a joint Sino-American approach, which could eventually lead to a durable solution. It could allow Beijing and Washington to begin a process in earnest of coordinating their approaches to North Korea. If both countries can better align their goals and interests, and their preferred stick and carrots, they will be able to put more effective pressure on North Korea. Sounds good, right?

But there are complications, namely the China factor. 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. Additionally, China tends to look the other way when North Korea lashes out at the world (missile tests, nuke tests, its aggression against South Korea in 2010). From time to time, China verbally protests against various North Korea actions but rarely if ever follows up.

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 on its own self-interests than acting as a responsible stakeholder in the international community.

So this is where we’re at: sticks, led by the US, aren't working as they only escalate tensions on the Korean 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.

Furthermore, China is not going to be a reliable partner on this issue, at least not anytime soon. There's no reason for Washington to pin its hopes on China “getting the message” on North Korea and saving the day, despite its recent support of a new round of United Nations Security Council sanctions against its ally. And the six-party talks, much hyped by the Bush administration, have gone nowhere for years.

The US should not be content with keeping the status quo for years to come. It's an unstable situation. Inter-Korean tensions are high and show no sign of abating. Countries in region, including South Korea and Japan, feel threatened and are more insecure, prompting them to think about ways to fortify and enhance their national defenses. And North Korea, with its young, untested supreme leader, is fixated on showing toughness and resolve. In this combustible environment, brinksmanship is a risky game.

It's time for the US to try a different track. It's not enough to primarily rely on Sweden, America's representative in North Korea as the US doesn’t have an embassy in Pyongyang, or South Korea, Japan or other regional actors, or on satellite imagery for information about North Korea. The US should take matters into its own hands, eschewing the “leading from behind” doctrine that the Obama administration has ostensibly used at times. In short, it's a good time to move to toward more intense diplomacy to get a better handle on North Korea’s intensions, goals, interests, red lines and domestic constraints.

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

On the plus side, news leaked last week that senior American officials met in private at least three times during the past 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 US 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 US shouldn't only pursue occasional, stand-alone meetings with North Korea. As should be obvious, limited, infrequent interaction with North Korea sharply reduces the chance 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 US.

Moreover, routine, structured talks, over time, can allow enough momentum to build to get a deal done or at least increase mutual understanding on important issues. Furthermore, there's no need to keep these meetings private, as the US has seemingly done. By telling the world of such talks, whether via press briefings or news leaks, the Obama administration can keep its partners in the region in the loop and communicate its seriousness in solving, once and for all, the outstanding problems between Washington and its allies and Pyongyang.

Of course, there are critics of engagement with North Korea, both in the US and abroad. They see no need to reach out to an irrational and tyrannical state. What these critics need to remember is that engagement doesn’t equate to diplomatic or political support for Pyongyang or legitimization of any part of North Korea’s government and policymaking. US officials can communicate cordially with their North Korean counterparts, yet at the same time, in private and in public, voice opposition to policies and actions undertaken by Pyongyang.

But more importantly, think of the puzzle this way: the US doesn’t want war with North Korea, and it doesn’t want North Korea to have the ability to weaponize nuclear material. At the moment, North Korea shows no signs of capitulating in its nuclear drive, and previous efforts at international engagement have spectacularly failed. Given these conditions, in order for the US to peacefully solve its issues with North Korea, it needs to try new and different mechanisms. Steady, recurring bilateral talks, in my view, aptly fit the bill.

Brad Nelson is president and co-founder of the US-based Center for World Conflict and Peace.

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