Strategic Patience Isn't the Disaster You Think it is

South Korean forces firing M101 105-millimeter howitzers.

Patience and passivity are two different things.

Recently, in these pages and elsewhere, I have defended the unpopular notion of “strategic patience” regarding North Korea. This informal term emerged from the Obama administration. Like the other Obama meme, “leading from behind,” it received wide criticism from proponents—neoconservative and liberal internationalist—of an activist U.S. foreign policy. A common line of criticism is that strategic patience is indistinguishable from doing nothing, and indeed the moniker suggests just that, which is unfortunate. The following is an effort at a more robust defense.

Patience does suggest waiting, and while this seems demoralizing, I defend it, because more active approaches have huge downsides. This is why, despite the regular ritual of North Korea policy reviews when new administrations take over in Washington or Seoul, we usually end up defaulting back to deterrence and waiting for North Korea and its Chinese patron to change.

Specifically, we are waiting for North Korea to liberalize and/or China to realize that its support for North Korea is more damaging than beneficial. Much as we waited for the internal contradictions of Communism to catch up with the Soviet Union—which they did by the 1980s—so we are waiting for some kind of opening in Pyongyang. We must also wait on China, because Beijing’s assistance to North Korea buys the regime time and space to escape those contradictions. If North Korea were truly isolated, without its Chinese sponsor and with Chinese cooperation on United Nations sanctions, the failures of the North Korean system would accumulate rapidly, much as they did in the late 1990s.

Obviously, these are high hopes. We will be waiting a long time. But that does not obviate the strategy. It worked in the Cold War. And just as more active approaches toward the Soviets, like rollback, had large risks that ultimately made patience and continuing deterrence the best choice, the same applies in Korea. Alternatives to strategic patience are tempting, but risky.

On the right, hawks advocate for kinetic options. Now that North Korea is talking of a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile, President Donald Trump’s administration is apparently considering airstrikes. South Korean administrations too have considered forceful options, most recently in 2010 after two North Korean provocations in six months killed around fifty South Koreans. At the last minute, Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean president at the time, demurred for reasons that are instructive and continue to hobble all kinetic deliberations.

There is little doubt that U.S. and South Korea airpower could deal punishing blows to North Korean missile and nuclear sites. North Korean air defense is far behind the allies’ hi-tech capabilities. Rather, the concerns twofold.

First, airstrikes might provoke a war. The allies would surely win that war, but the civilian death toll would likely be in the hundreds of thousands, and maybe reach the millions if North Korea were to use nuclear weapons. We do not know what the redlines of the Korean People’s Army are, but its massive role in the state is predicated on its ability to defend the homeland. Airstrikes would directly challenge that rationale; the brass would likely demand a major response.

Second, Seoul is hugely vulnerable to retaliation. Even if kinetic action does not spark an all-out war, South Korea is still poorly configured for any kind of lesser, tit-for-tat escalation with the North; its capital city begins just thirty miles from the demilitarized zone. That puts it within artillery range and explains why South Korean leaders have never green-lit extensive counterstrikes to North Korean provocations. Seoul is just too vulnerable.

On the left, doves propose engaging North Korea. Yet here too the downsides are significant. Just talking to North Korea affords it major benefits, regardless of whether the talks actually go anywhere (this is why North Korea always wants to talk). And North Korea’s history of keeping its word in negotiations is famously terrible. The last major U.S.-North Korea agreement was the “leap day deal” of 2012. As Ankit Panda notes, the deal started falling apart within weeks, and taught U.S. officials that Kim Jong-un’s North Korea was still the slippery, bad faith negotiator it had always been. Indeed in a meeting last year, I heard Mark Lippert, then Washington’s ambassador to South Korea, say that the North Koreans starting reneging on the deal within days.

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