North Korea and U.S. Priorities

April 15, 2013 Topic: Security Region: North Korea

North Korea and U.S. Priorities

Kim Jong-un has the United States over a barrel.

If someone could get jumping-bean secretary of state Kerry off of his jet long enough to preside over a review of U.S. foreign priorities, he might discover why we are in such a pickle in our dealings with North Korea—and what might be done. It is a nation that openly threatens the United States and its allies—not less than with nuclear attacks—and all we can say is, “well, the kid seems to be bluffing.”

Talking heads on TV keep reassuring each other that North Korea is not suicidal. Washington is scaling back military exercises in the area and urging South Korea to be cautious—and to be sure that if attacked their response will be proportional and not escalatory. True, the United States did send some untested missile-defense units to the region and to Alaska, and moved some other military assets around. But altogether, this is not much of a response.

The reason we must be so circumspect is that Kim Jong-un has us over a barrel. It is common knowledge that he can flatten Seoul and may well be able to overrun South Korea. If he proceeds, Washington will be left with very few and very tough options: either using nuclear arms or engaging in a large-scale conventional war, drawing on our worn-out army in a faraway country—all this just as our economy requires retrenching.

The United States finds itself so cornered because of an overly ambitious foreign policy and the absence of clear priority setting. Washington keeps investing in forcing regime changes and promoting democratic governments across the globe—at huge human and economic costs, with very meager results—as is all too evident in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Instead, promoting security should be the first order of business, and preventing the spread of nuclear arms must top these concerns.

What does this all have to do with North Korea? If the United States applies the “Security First” doctrine (which I spell out in a book with the same title) to China, it would stop lecturing it about human rights (which yielded very little), rest demands that it let its currency float, and park the long list of demands laid out under the rubric of making China into what, in our judgment, is a “responsible stakeholder” in the U.S.-defined world order. Instead, Washington would make it clear that its first, second and third priority is to prevent a nuclear arms race in the region. It would remind China that if North Korea keeps threatening its neighbors, then Japan may well develop nuclear arms of its own (given the large amount of plutonium it already has, it could do so very quickly). The United States would indicate that given the importance it attributes to security, it would respond very favorably to various Chinese concerns, if only China would use its considerable leverage to defang the North Korean military nuclear program. For instance, Washington would commit to not moving U.S. troops beyond the demilitarized zone to the border of China, should the North Korean regime collapse and the two Koreas become united. The United States might even consider letting all of the new Korea to serve as a buffer zone, free from foreign troops.

Meanwhile, we must reconsider what we are not doing in the Middle East. Are we quite sure that we have figured out what must be done so that we shall not face another North Korea-like situation there in the near future?

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World .

Image: Wikimedia Commons/ Darwinek. CC BY-SA 3.0.