A Korea of Mythic Proportions

A Korea of Mythic Proportions

Washington is mesmerized by its own clichés about how to deal with Pyongyang.

American foreign-policy discussions are often more about us than other nations. This is made all the worse when dealing with an adversary about which we have little information of its internal workings and seek to make deductions from our experience. North Korea exemplifies this problem. It has always been difficult to discuss dispassionately. It is a bad state and a repugnant international actor. That unfortunately is not enough to tell us what to do about major issues with North Korea. Frequent accusations of gullibility or “condoning bad behavior” that permeate the discussion do little to shed light on the problem. With little intelligence and much inference, clichés abound in our discussion of North Korean policy. Here are five:

1. China will somehow solve our North Korean problem. Make China take responsibility for getting North Korea to behave and, if necessary, force it to curb its bad behavior or even take action to overthrow the regime. The idea of China as savior at the six-party talks was hailed by conservative commentators as one of the great policy initiatives of the George W. Bush administration. Many leading figures in and out of government continue to urge our government to press harder on China to fulfill its duty as a responsible stakeholder.

Unfortunately China looks at its responsibility differently and its priorities, while often similar, are not identical to ours. It clearly is not happy with its neighbor and there is considerable debate within China about their relations. China will try to use its influence in Pyongyang, as it recently did to help prevent escalation, but it is not going to undermine the North Korean government. The Chinese military would be strongly opposed, and no Chinese leader would likely survive such an upheaval with its neighbor. Instead, China's usual response to American urgings on North Korean conduct is to tell us to start talking to North Korea and to issue calls for temperature cooling on the peninsula. China’s determination to stand with North Korea can be seen as analogous to the American attachment to Israel with its disregard of American entreaties. Instead of simply raising the decibel level, the United States might more usefully try to work out with China specific ways of controlling the North’s worrisome potential for escalation and how best to move ahead on denuclearization whatever the difficulty of getting to the end.

2. Regime change, we hear again more frequently, is the only way to deal with North Korea; it is a dying state and we should facilitate its demise. That end is certainly the most desirable goal, and there is little doubt that North Korea has lost any dynamism—except for making some advanced weapons (which they have tried hard to use to secure aid). The idea of imminent collapse is a core tenet of the “don’t negotiate with them” school. This policy is encouraged by South Korean reports that the economic situation is awful and that the Kim government is on the brink of collapse because of the illness of Kim Jong Il and the consequent transition of dynastic leadership to an unproven and unworthy young man.

Most important for policy purposes, no one knows how long it would take to achieve regime change in North Korea and how to get there peacefully without Chinese support. Nor does this scenario deal with all the trouble and perturbations that North Korea poses until it dies. North Korea’s demise cannot be precluded, but Kim and his military have tough internal control mechanisms. Moreover, China is increasing support of the regime and aid to ensure economic stability in this leadership-transition period. Without more obvious signs of breakdown in government control, there is no credible indication of early collapse. Our yearning regrettably bears little relation to North Korea’s known reality.

3. We hear frequently today that it is all about Kim Jong-un, the kid and supreme-leader designate. Supposedly that accounts for North Korea's sudden rash of military provocations. The kid is proving his mettle and winning the all-important support of the military. That, of course, cannot be precluded, but there is little tangible evidence to support it, other than that is difficult to build a cult of a new personality with such little fodder. This view is mostly based on the notion that his father did all the dirty work of the eighties in solidifying his claim to succession, and now his son is doing the same. But his father was in his fifties when he took over and had much of his political educational experience in his forties. The son is supposedly twenty-eight years old with little experience, and the idea that he generated the recent military provocations seems far-fetched. But even if it were true there is little to deduce from it other than that greater caution is in order in dealing with the North.

4. The notion that talking to North Korea is worthless and rewards bad behavior is another staple of our discussion. You don’t go politically wrong in Washington supporting the isolation of North Korea. It is clear, however, that most of their provocations occur when we are not talking to them or breaking off talks with them. Not talking to them has so far produced little. Nor has American isolation worked with Iran for thirty years and Burma for the last twenty. But that does not stop the political demands for isolation. In two years, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea has had only one perfunctory talk with his North Korean counterpart. Talk for talking’s sake may not be productive, but without something of a dialogue, progress on the nuclear issue remains elusive. We seemed to be damned if we do and damned if we don't.

5. The last cliché is the belief that the United States has a policy vis-à-vis the DPRK. It does—every few years. The Clinton administration seemed headed for war over North Korean nuclear efforts in the early nineties, but then proceeded to work out an agreement to get rid of their nuclear program in exchange for material benefits. It slowed implementation of the agreement because of congressional pressures but eventually it moved forward with very high-level visits by leaders to both capitals. During this time, the North was not making more plutonium. That hiatus ended abruptly when the Bush administration declared Pyongyang part of the ‘axis of evil’ and virtually threatened the North with destruction. The Bush administration soon turned around and began the six-party talks on denuclearization, and after ups and downs embarked on a last ditch effort in 2008 to make progress on negotiations despite a major split in the administration. That effort quickly floundered over the questions of verification and uranium enrichment. Any notion of a long-term unified strategy toward the North seems illusory.

Compounding that difficulty is that coordinating with our ally South Korea is essential to developing and executing a sound policy. For much of the last two decades, U.S. and South Korean policy toward the North were often not in sync. During much of this decade, Seoul supplied Pyongyang with considerable aid while Washington held back. In 2008, South Korea's new president, Lee Myung-bak dropped the so-called Sunshine Policy in favor of a tough policy of isolating North Korea until Pyongyang changed its spots. Obama started off with the thought of engagement, but to strengthen our alliance with Seoul quickly fell into lock-step with South Korea’s new policy. Right now if current tensions continue to recede it seems likely that more consideration will be given to renewing talks with the North.

Dealing with North Korea is manifestly and immensely difficult. Whether the United States can ever produce an effective and politically sustainable North Korean policy with a close working relationship with South Korea is uncertain. But we are probably more likely to get there if we can avoid being mesmerized by our clichés and work with China to establish common objectives in dealing with the North and its nuclear weapons and missile programs, and determine how to realistically move ahead on those objectives.