[Viewepoint] Time to reverse strategy with North
South Korea and the United States should enhance defense and deterrence efforts with the aim of changing North Korean behavior.
In ancient Greek mythology, there was an unfortunate soul named Sisyphus who was condemned by the gods for all eternity to roll a large bolder up a mountain - only to have it roll back down to the bottom just as he approached the summit.
For the past two decades, the United States and the Republic of Korea have had their own Sisyphean experience dealing with North Korea.
The pattern has become clear. First, Pyongyang escalates the situation by testing nuclear weapons or missiles, transferring nuclear know-how, revealing new advances in its nuclear program or attacking South Korea.
The international community then responds (usually) with sanctions or military deployments.
However, in most of these cycles, U.S. or South Korean moves are temporary and are reversed when negotiations resume, whereas North Korea’s actions lead to a permanent advancement in its nuclear weapons or missile programs.
Where our side uses its leverage tactically to return to a diplomatic process, North Korea uses its provocations strategically to expand its arsenal and develop nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, with the eventual aim of forcing lasting changes in the existing security apparatus in Northeast Asia.
By opportunistically advancing a long-term strategic plan in this way, North Korea has enjoyed most of the initiative over the past two decades.
Pyongyang lost the initiative for brief moments - after the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003, which drove Kim Jong-il and the North Korean leadership underground for over a month, and after the sanctions on Banco Delta Asia in 2005, which interfered with Kim Jong-il’s critical financial network.
Now we are seeing it again in the wake of the Yeongpyeong bombardment, when the North was deterred from responding to this week’s live-fire exercises by South Korea after Pyongyang saw the deployment of F-15s and joint U.S.-South Korea maneuvers in the West Sea (and possibly came under pressure not to respond during Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo’s visit to Pyongyang).
In the previous cycles, the United States and South Korea handed the initiative back to the North.
This time, however, it will be critical to break the cycle and retake the initiative for the long term.
The key will be to ensure that we have our own strategic campaign plan for degrading North Korean capabilities and then applying it opportunistically ourselves when crises occur.
In effect, this would turn Pyongyang’s approach back on the North.
The key will be to ensure that when North Korea engages in its games against the South, the response will cause lasting - not temporary - disadvantages for Pyongyang.
For example, Kim Jong-il probably chose to attack the Cheonan in part because Pyongyang saw the Northern Limit Line (NLL) as a traditional fissure between Washington and Seoul that the North could again exploit.
The U.S. and South Korean response should be to regularize bilateral naval exercises in the West Sea to demonstrate that North Korea’s actions have now permanently solidified U.S.-South Korea security cooperation along the NLL.
That would represent a permanent loss of advantage for Pyongyang. For the same reason, South Korean artillery and naval exercises along the West Sea should now regularly include deployments of F-15s; not just as a precaution, but to demonstrate that North Korean provocations will be met with more expansive Rules of Engagement (ROE) than the limited counter-battery fire from isolated islands.
There are other ways to impose lasting consequences on Pyongyang in subsequent stages of a U.S.-South Korea counter-escalation strategy. After the next North Korean provocation, the United States could target North Korea’s overseas financial networks by using U.S. legal authorities to unilaterally suspend corresponding banking privileges with U.S. banks for any foreign bank engaged in commerce with North Korean entities - like Tanshan Commercial Bank - that are on the UN Security Council’s sanction list (and still reportedly operate with some impunity even in China).
At the next stage, the United States and South Korea could work with the European Union and other like-minded states to close down North Korean diplomatic missions that are illegally engaged in commercial and often criminal activities. This would further choke off the Kim regime’s cash flow. Future options could include restoring Team Spirit exercises, which the North would consider a serious setback.
None of these measures would cut off diplomatic channels, humanitarian assistance or North-South cooperation projects. The priority for determining these actions should be that they permanently degrade North Korea’s ability to proliferate or use military coercion and that they impact the pillars of Kim Jong-il’s internal control.
The aim would not be to take temporary, gratuitous or purely symbolic responses - or to shift to a strategy of aggressive regime change - but instead to enhance defense and deterrence and to change North Korean behaviour. That in turn may lead to more successful diplomatic negotiations.
However, if Pyongyang concludes that returning to the negotiating table alone will lead to a reversal of these defensive measures, then we will quickly find ourselves back in the old Sisyphean cycle.
The United States and South Korea simply cannot temporize their responses to future provocations or crises.
There should be a strategic plan in place with a menu of measures to impose consequences on the North for its actions. Knowing that such a strategy is in place would by itself have important deterrent effects on Pyongyang.
*The writer is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
By Michael J. Green