In Defense of a Bold U.S. Approach Toward North Korea

October 22, 2021 Topic: North Korea Region: Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: North KoreaSouth KoreaDenuclearizationKorean WarSanctions

In Defense of a Bold U.S. Approach Toward North Korea

A bold new strategy toward North Korea means engaging North Korea politically in order to fundamentally change the nature of the bilateral relationship.

The United States launched the Six-Party Talks mechanism in 2003 to deal with the nuclear issue multilaterally. However, the United States used this mechanism mainly as an instrument for multilaterally pressuring North Korea rather than as a venue for a pragmatic, give-and-take kind of negotiation. Even the hard-won September 19th Agreement of 2005 did not have a chance to be implemented mainly due to the opposition of U.S. hard-liners who produced a financial sanctions law against North Korea almost simultaneously. The cost of having no real negotiation during 2003-2006 turned out to be quite detrimental. North Korea kept producing significant stockpiles of fissile materials and finally conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006.

President Trump’s meeting with Chairman Kim Jong-un was unprecedented, opening a direct communications channel between the two highly hostile leaders. This might have helped to mitigate unbridled distrust and suspicion, the biggest obstacles to a successful negotiated solution to the nuclear dilemma. However, Trump’s diplomacy was not much different in substance from the conventional U.S. approach in the sense that it neglected the security dilemma problem. Throughout the whole diplomatic process from 2018-19, Washington consistently demanded that Pyongyang denuclearize first before the United States moved. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang May 8-9, 2018, and told Kim Jong-un that the United States needed North Korea to provide a list of sites for developing and testing nuclear weapons.

When Secretary Pompeo again demanded that North Korea produce a full declaration of its nuclear program at his meeting with Kim Yong Chol in July 2018, Kim responded angrily. He was reported to have said that the U.S. demand was nothing less than asking for the target list for an American attack on North Korea.

In this way, North Korea’s security concern has been regarded mostly as a disguise or pretext for their aggressive nuclear ambition. U.S. policy-makers, therefore, focused on applying military, economic, and diplomatic pressure on North Korea. Policy-makers and experts tended to assume that a small country like North Korea would not capitulate and denuclearize unless the United States strengthened its pressure tactics. In addition, Washington’s expectation of Beijing’s full cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue contributed significantly to this kind of sanguine moralistic perspective. So there is a hidden linkage between the first characteristic and the second characteristic of the conventional U.S. approach. Of course, China, the most important patron of North Korea, did not help the United States. And North Korea, facing those pressures, became even more desperate and accelerated its nuclear development. This vicious circle repeated itself over the past three decades.

Supporters of the moralistic coercion approach tended to overestimate the power of U.S. policy tools. The two pillars of the U.S. pressure campaign against North Korea were military and economic. However, the utility of U.S. military pressure on North Korea was quite limited. The effectiveness of military pressure was high only when the threat to use military force was credible. But it was usually not very credible because North Korea knew the United States would not be able to strike North Korea for fear of a retaliatory attack on South Korea, which might escalate into a total war.

The second pillar of U.S. pressure is the policy tool of economic sanctions. This can work only when there is a strong international coalition. However, the United States had only the illusion of China’s full cooperation in applying harsh enough sanctions against North Korea. It took a long time for U.S. policy-makers to recognize that China would not help much. China never wanted to take any serious measures that could destabilize the North Korean regime. Thus, China’s unwillingness to fully cooperate seriously weakened the effectiveness of U.S. pressure tactics.

By neglecting the security dilemma aspect of the North Korean predicament, U.S. policy-makers encountered the challenge of discerning between perception and misperception in dealing with North Korea. How will the North Korean leaders perceive U.S. intentions and respond to them? In the history of international relations, misperception has often led to disasters. Professor Robert Jervis highlighted the importance of this issue in his essay in the May/June 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs.

Whether the U.S. can actually persuade Pyongyang depends not just on which tools it chooses to use, but also, more fundamentally, on how it is viewed by North Korea. How do North Korean leaders interpret the signals Washington sends?

The promoters of the moralistic approach tended to view past U.S.-North Korea relations not as an “action-reaction” process but from a morally charged “bad guy, good guy” perspective. In their eyes, North Korea always reneged on agreements while the United States always kept its promises. However, the reality has been more complicated than that. For example, it was the United States that did not implement its promise to improve political relations with North Korea as laid out in the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework. Instead, many U.S. government insiders were just expecting North Korea to collapse soon. The George W. Bush administration also unilaterally scrapped the U.S.-North Korea communiqué of 2000, which had promised to end the hostile relationship between the two countries. Frequent talks on the regime change option among policy-makers and opinion leaders in the United States aggravated North Korea’s paranoia about its own security.

Paying serious attention to the other side’s perception of U.S. intentions, rather than focusing solely on punitive counter-measures, has led to successful crisis resolution in the past. One example is the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. President John F. Kennedy, despite pressure to strike Cuban missile sites from U.S. military leaders, tried hard to discern what the Soviet leaders’ perception of the U.S. intention would be. The recommendation of the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson II, to make a deal with the Soviet Union was criticized by hardliners as cowardly. But President Kennedy took it, and his prudent decision contributed to a peaceful resolution of the crisis that might have escalated into World War III.

A similar attentiveness was never applied to North Korea. This discrepancy was certainly because of the much larger asymmetry of power between the United States and North Korea. North Korea was simply not the Soviet Union. In retrospect and ironically, this asymmetry of power worked against not the small country, North Korea, but the big country, the United States. After all, the small country of North Korea’s resolute stance to assure its own security against big powers through nuclear weapons development has always been much stronger than the U.S. will and commitment to denuclearize North Korea.

My intention here is never to defend North Korea’s position. From the beginning, North Korea’s original sin was trying to woo the United States with its nuclear weapons program, a deadly wrong policy tool, out of desperation. I am just emphasizing that, once confronted by this kind of undesirable situation, U.S. policy-makers needed to observe the situation from a somewhat disinterested, amoralistic, third-person angle in order to find clues to a solution. The moralistic coercion approach of punishing a ‘bad guy’ may sound just and politically correct but may not be based on a thoroughly cool-headed calculation of the U.S. national interest. That approach has actually deprived U.S. policy-makers of the incentive to search for a more fundamental and realistic solution and to break the vicious cycle in which U.S. pressure leads to the acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. In other words, instead of trying to cure the disease, the moralistic coercion approach just tried to palliate the symptoms each time. This was how we arrived at the current dangerous situation.

Failure to be Comprehensive

The third characteristic of the conventional U.S. policy toward North Korea is the lack of a comprehensive approach. As a result of focusing solely on security issues, policy-makers tended to disregard the interconnectedness among North Korea’s nuclear, economic, and diplomatic policies. As Shevardnadze’s encounter with the North Koreans in 1990 has shown earlier, the diplomatic isolation of North Korea aggravated their sense of insecurity, which motivated them in the early stage to develop nuclear weapons. Economic difficulties led them to pursue nuclear armament since it would cost much less than trying to strengthen their conventional military forces, which was the essence of North Korea’s Byungjin policy (parallel development of economy and nuclear weapons).

So from a policy-making perspective, it is almost impossible to separate the nuclear issue from the diplomatic and economic issues and then expect successful denuclearization. However, most U.S. policy-makers narrowly focused on the nuclear issue only. Addressing issues like diplomatic opening or economic assistance to North Korea has been regarded not as a necessary condition but as a quid pro quo for making progress in denuclearization.

For example, among other reasons, I suspect, the root cause of the collapse of the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework was the failure to improve political relations between the United States and North Korea. Even President Trump’s unconventional approach of meeting the North Korean leader person-to-person could not make any meaningful progress because he did not prepare a concrete big picture, which covered the economic and diplomatic dimensions. Even his promise to provide North Korea with a “very bright future” in return for denuclearization was nothing but mere talk. Thus, any agreement on denuclearization that may be produced in the future will not last long without diplomatic normalization between the United States and North Korea and some international assistance for developing the North Korean economy. This is why we need a comprehensive approach from the United States.