As NK proliferates, so do bad ideas

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As NK proliferates, so do bad ideas

With Pyongyang’s accelerated testing of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, policy pundits and politicians have pulled out a menu of failed policy proposals from the past in an effort to finally “solve” the North Korean nuclear program. Those interested in a sober and realistic approach to this next phase of the ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis can start by checking the following off their list.


1. Now Is the Time for A Grand Bargain with Pyongyang!

Two senior scholars at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC trotted out this idea again on September 30 in the Washington Post for anybody who has not been paying attention to the diplomatic record with North Korea over the past two decades. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” they stressed, implying that the United States has tried only pressure and not diplomacy with the North.

In fact, North Korea has violated every nuclear agreement with the outside world from the North-South agreement in 1992, to the Agreed Framework in 1995, to the Six Party agreement in 2005 and the Leap Day agreement in February 2012 — plus another dozen commitments in between. The Kim Jong-un regime is telling anyone and everyone that the North is not interested at all in denuclearization. They could be interested in talks about recognizing them as a nuclear weapons state, but that would be entirely counterproductive.


2. The Only Way to Stop the North’s Nuclear Program Is a Pre-emptive Strike!

This is a minority view one hears in the United States, but it is growing. However, one never hears this argument from any expert living in Seoul or Tokyo or anywhere else within range of North Korean missiles and artillery. The logic of the argument is that diplomacy has failed and that North Korea must be stopped before it develops the capability target the United States itself. All efforts should be made to curb the North’s missile and nuclear programs, to be sure. Moreover, as Victor Cha pointed out in his last column, a pre-emptive strike cannot be entirely ruled out since the United States will not know what warheads might be on future North Korean ICBM tests.

However, the call for a pre-emptive strike as the solution to the North Korean nuclear program underestimates the danger of retaliatory war by the North and overestimates the impact of North Korean ICBMs. Yes, North Korean ICBMs would present a whole new level of threat, but the United States lived under such a threat from the Soviet Union during the Cold War and never retreated from its commitment to nuclear umbrellas over NATO and Asian allies. North Korean nuclear armed ICBMs would be a serious threat, but not a great enough risk to merit military strikes in any scenario short of imminent attack.


3. Cut a deal with China to Stop North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Ambitions!

The North Korean nuclear program is so challenging that senior officials and politicians are frequently tempted to believe that we only need to bribe China into helping us pressure the North. Some argue that the United States should abandon Taiwan or human rights or Japan in order to entice Beijing to do more to pressure North Korea. The recent Council on Foreign Relations Task Force proposed that the United States promise not to station U.S. troops in North Korea after unification as a way to induce China’s cooperation. Park Geun-hye’s China policy was premised on the idea that warmer relations with Beijing will pressurize North Korea, until President Xi Jinping refused to take her calls in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear test.

The reality is that none of these “enticements” has or would fundamentally alter China’s basic view that the collapse of North Korea is contrary to Chinese strategic interests and that pressure only increases the danger of instability. Indeed, a number of CFR Task Force members dissented on the proposal to promise China there would be no U.S. forces north of the DMZ, recognizing it would have no effect in China and only make the United States look desperate. President Park, meanwhile, has decided that wooing China has done little good and now she is prepared to demonstrate to Beijing the consequences of Chinese complacency on North Korea by deploying THAAD. The reality is that China is paralyzed on North Korea and moves when it is obvious that the U.S., South Korea and Japan are prepared to take things into their own hands.


4. Force Regime Change!

Hope for regime change has been the refuge of frustrated North Korea policy makers for decades. The Clinton administration helped to sell the Agreed Framework in the U.S. Congress two decades ago by quietly suggesting the light water reactors would never have to be built because the North Korean regime would collapse first. Some hardliners in the Bush administration tolerated the Six Party Talks because they assumed the regime would not last long enough to receive all the benefits included in the September 2005 accord. Recognizing that North Korea may only now give up nuclear weapons when the regime changes, some pundits are pushing for an active policy of regime change. Yet the same fundamental problem remains: what tools does the United States have to bring down the regime if China continues propping it up?

The reality is that we are now in a world where no grand bargains, no bold strikes, no clever diplomatic framework will make the North Korean nuclear weapons program suddenly end. The United States and Korea will have to take steps that reinforce deterrence, interdict dangerous shipments of technologies and nuclear-related technologies to the North, keep pressure on China to enforce sanctions, reduce the risk of North Korean actions, and impose costs that over time might lead to different choices in Pyongyang. It will be hard, detailed and sometimes dangerous work. It may not be attractive to politicians and policy pundits, but it is the reality we will be facing for the next few years.


*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Michael Green

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