The fourth test
With the fourth nuclear test, North Korea has re-entered American politics. As in South Korea, the challenges are coming from both sides of the political aisle. Republicans are eager to blame Hillary Clinton, secretary of state during the second nuclear test in 2009 who left office just before the third in 2013. But those favoring engagement argue the Obama administration did not devote anywhere near the same energy to North Korea as it did to Iran. If we were willing to talk to Tehran, why not Pyongyang?
A review of the administration’s strategy suggests that these criticisms reflect classic 20-20 hindsight, or what Americans call backseat driving. Those seeking more engagement fail to remember that the United States tried to engage - and three times - without success. And many of those urging a tougher line are forced to admit that the ultimate arbiter of the issue is China.
But more importantly, the critics act as if there is no North Korea: that what the Kim Jong-un regime does is simply a result of the play of strategies devised in Washington, Seoul and Beijing. The regime, however, has stated its intention to become a nuclear power quite clearly. As a result it is not clear that more pressure or engagement will change where North Korea is going. The result is that containment is likely to be our best option for some time to come.
Barack Obama came to office with a view of foreign policy that was quite distinctive from his predecessor, spelled out in a fascinating interview with Thomas Friedman at the New York Times. The United States, Obama noted, was a powerful country that faced few direct threats from rogue regimes, whether Burma and Cuba, or Iran and North Korea. As a result, there was little danger in taking a calculated risk of engagement.
North Korea was perfectly aware of the president’s approach. But rather than exploiting the opportunity to get back to the six-party talks, it responded to his inauguration with the missile test-nuclear test sequence in the spring of 2009. The reasons for Pyongyang’s response are no doubt to be found in a combination of bluster and concerns about the succession, but an unfortunate pattern was set.
The Obama administration did not give up. On the one hand, it worked through the UN with Korea and Japan to institute new sanctions. Yet at the same time, it expressed a willingness to talk. In December 2009, the late Stephen Bosworth even visited Pyongyang, and Washington had cleared a return trip by a North Korean envoy. The response to these initiatives? The sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. The idea that the United States could have taken initiatives in the wake of direct attacks on an ally is a fantasy.
But that was still not the end of the U.S. willingness to engage. Over the course of 2011 and 2012, the United States tried yet again, reaching the so-called Leap Year Deal of 2013 just before Kim Jong-il’s death. The timing is often considered unfortunate, but reflection suggests quite the opposite. The offer of a generous aid package signaled yet again American willingness to engage positively with the incoming Kim Jong-un. The response? The “satellite launch” of December 2012, the third nuclear test and the worst tensions on the peninsula in decades.
This short history makes a simple point: that North Korea is the main protagonist in this story line, not the United States, South Korea or even China. Particularly since April 2013, Kim Jong-un has stated his objectives quite clearly. The country will pursue economic development and nuclear weapons, it sees itself as a responsible nuclear power and it is uninterested in negotiations aimed primarily at denuclearization. Rather, it seeks direct bilateral negotiations with the United States, negotiations that would sideline the South.
Given the political season, the United States is not going to respond to a nuclear test with concessions. Rather, the policy debate will center on two lines of action. The first is an effort to secure multilateral support for more sanctions on North Korea. If this fails, the United States could well move to so-called secondary sanctions, measures aimed at the Chinese entities - including banks - that do business with the North. Second, the test will deepen U.S.-South Korea cooperation on extended deterrence. Whether Korea opts for Thaad or not, more attention will be paid to military options that will limit risks from the North. Both of these measures, however, are ultimately aimed at China. A central issue in the new year for both Korean and American diplomacy will be to find out if Xi Jinping is serious about North Korea or not. The answer to that question will provide the main story line on the peninsula in 2016.
The author is Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of University of California in San Diego.
by Stephan Haggard