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Stop ignoring North Korea

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Under the Obama administration, U.S. policy toward North Korea largely has devolved into the president sitting in the Oval Office, closing his eyes and hoping the nuclear monsters will go away. Alas, it hasn’t worked. Pyongyang has staged its fourth nuclear test.

After the test, Obama seemed to close his eyes and hope that Beijing would make the nuclear monsters go away. Alas, that isn’t likely to work either. Announced North Korea’s Foreign Ministry: “The U.S. should be accustomed to the status of the DPRK as a nuclear weapons state whether it likes it or not.”

The administration’s frustration in dealing with North Korea is understandable. Nothing seems to have worked.

In fact, the latest test came amid evidence of warming ties with the People’s Republic of China and reports of a possible invitation to Kim Jong Un to visit Beijing. Evidently Pyongyang cares no more about its ally’s opinion on the issue than America’s.

North Korea remains the land of no good options. Two decades ago, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter helped prepare plans for striking the North’s nuclear facilities. However, triggering a second Korean war would be a poor legacy for Obama.

Washington is pressing the U.N. Security Council to approve additional sanctions; the House has passed legislation to impose additional unilateral economic penalties. But the Kims never have let their people’s suffering influence policy and so far Beijing, though professing to support a “necessary response” by the United Nations, has refused to apply sufficient pressure to threaten the Kim regime’s survival.

If China did so, the U.S., its allies South Korea and Japan, and China all might regret getting what they wished for. An abrupt and violent regime collapse could yield civil disorder, factional combat, loose nukes and refugee tides.

That could lead to Chinese military intervention to stabilize a new, pro-China government in Pyongyang. Then South Korea would face a renewed and likely permanent division of the peninsula.

The administration could continue its “close one’s eyes and hope for the best” approach. Yet that almost certainly means continued North Korean development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

The only other alternative? What Beijing has advocated all along: engagement with the North.

Obviously, there’s no guarantee that this approach will work either. Nevertheless, it offers what the North most wants — direct contact with America. The Obama administration’s insistence that Pyongyang take steps toward denuclearization first is a non-starter.

Negotiations also seem essential to winning greater Chinese support in dealing with North Korea. In Beijing’s view the U.S. is responsible for creating a hostile security environment for the North.

China is unlikely to risk its political and economic position in the North as well as the ill consequences of a North Korean implosion if Washington does not do its part. Although Beijing does not want a nuclear North, so far stability appears more important than denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

Moreover, negotiations offer the opportunity to resolve subsidiary issues and improve security even short of achieving full denuclearization. There’s no reason to believe that the Kim regime ever will agree to abandon nuclear weapons, but there may be opportunities to cap the nuclear program and limit weapons development. Perhaps there are trade-offs to be made between military exercises in the South and advanced positioning of military units in the North.

An ongoing dialogue, no matter how limited, offers additional opportunities. If Pyongyang is ever going to talk about human rights, it will do so only after it feels more secure.

Nor should the Obama administration leave the problem for the next president. If so, Pyongyang will be another year along in its nuclear development.

Moreover, a Republican successor to Obama — certainly as possible as not — would be less inclined to give diplomacy a chance. But a new Republican president might choose prudence over rhetoric if a negotiating process was underway.

North Korea’s latest nuclear test is bad news, though hardly a surprise. Indeed, it’s probably the inevitable outcome of a policy which continues to confront Pyongyang militarily without engaging it diplomatically. If Washington wants a different result, it will have to employ a different approach. Which means engagement.

Doing so still might not make the North’s nuclear monsters go away. Nevertheless, the lesson of Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test is that talking to North Korea offers a better hope of success than ignoring it. But then, that’s what Beijing has been telling the U.S. for a long time.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author a number of books on politics and economics, including “Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World” and co-author of “The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.” He frequently writes on military non-interventionism.

  • 151E

    Refreshing to read a sensible realpolitik analysis of the situation.

  • 151E

    Refreshing to read a sensible realpolitik analysis of the situation.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Technically it wouldn’t be a second Korean war… but this can only go on for so long before Kim or one of his inevitable heirs (who we can only guess will be artificially selected for the same traits that made the son and grandson progressively worse than “great leader”) decided to press the button.

    I don’t imagine Seoul is looking to start a war seeing as how they’re within firing range of massive amounts of artillery.

  • The Hard Man

    Ridiculous… The author recommends the all carrot-no stick ‘unicorns and fairy dust’ approach of the last twenty years. The US should put its nukes back into South Korea as a bargaining chip.

    • Michael Hoggan

      That combined with a renewed commitment to missile defense. I don’t have much faith in either Beijing’s or Pyongyang’s good graces.

      • The Hard Man

        Beijing and Pyongyang have no good graces on this issue, only lies and prevarications.

    • 151E

      The US already has nuclear armed submarines, bombers, and ICBMs. Stationing a few nukes in South Korea doesn’t change the calculus. Ironically, such a threat display only serves as validation of the North Korean view that nukes equal respect, and provide both effective deterrence and bargaining leverage. You certainly won’t get the North Korean regime to abandon their weapons program that way.

      • The Hard Man

        No, but it would unambiguously remind them that any attack on the South would be overwhelmingly responded to, as well as providing the west one bargaining chip. Clearly, that WOULD change the calculus.

      • Travis Frazier

        No it’d just prompt China to escalate and remind the US that they also have nukes. Did you learn nothing from the Cold War?

      • The Hard Man

        LOL! China/North Korea already escalated in the face of a unilateral US retreat. The Cold War teaches us that every retreat will be met with the other side’s advance.

      • Travis Frazier

        ummm. No. you should study up on the cold war. The US did exactly what you are talking about to the USSR by moving tons of nukes to Europe. Russia responded by trying to do the same thing and move missles to Cuba which almost resulted in another world war if the us hadnt backed down a d also moved our nukes away from the ussr’s borders (Cuban Missle Crisis if you want to read more). You dont bully nuclear powers by moving nukes next to their borders. That just makes things worse and id rather not have to repeat history just because people like you refuse to learn from the past.

      • The Hard Man

        Jesus, where do you get your info? It was the missiles in Turkey which Kennedy traded for the missiles in Cuba. The US should do the same thing in Korea but right now we have zero chips to play with.

      • Travis Frazier

        No we should not do the same thing again. I’m not a fan of any nuclear missile crisis. You can’t bully nuclear powers with nukes. What about this don’t you understand?

      • The Hard Man

        So keep trying to play nice and see how many nukes Pyongyang (with Beijing’s help) builds. Having no strategy for rolling them back is a recipe for disaster…unless you are a paid Wumao or an ignoramus.

      • Travis Frazier

        If Beijing truly wants to let NK get nukes then there is nothing we can do outside of starting a war which will result in the death of many innocent people. We can not bully China with nukes. Our only options are 1) a violent war 2) open talks with NK to try to talk to them but accept that they will be getting nukes someday or 3) to continue to ignore/sanction them and hope they collapse before they get nukes. If we could get China on our side to really push sanctions then we’d be great but that’s unlikely and it’d never happen if we started moving a bunch of nukes right next to China’s border.

        I’m sorry if this is hard for you to hear but its the truth.

      • The Hard Man

        Sorry but you have to admit that the ‘more of the same’ approach has run it’s course….unless you are a Wumao or Beijing apologist, in which case your opinion is already owned by the CCP.

      • Travis Frazier

        I gave you the options. As I said, if Beijing truely wants NK to get nukes then there’s little we can do to stop it. We can’t bully China into doing what we want, without possibility starting a major war.

      • The Hard Man

        You clearly do not understand deterrence. If the west had nukes permanently stationed in South Korea, the likelihood that the North would use theirs is about zero. If there are none in the South then the North might just take a chance.

      • Travis Frazier

        Dude we can literally hit any part of the world with a nuke right now. It seems that you are the one that doesn’t understand “deterrence”

      • Travis Frazier

        If Beijing truly wants to let NK get nukes then there is nothing we can do outside of starting a war which will result in the death of many innocent people. We can not bully China with nukes. Our only options are 1) a violent war 2) open talks with NK to try to talk to them but accept that they will be getting nukes someday or 3) to continue to ignore/sanction them and hope they collapse before they get nukes. If we could get China on our side to really push sanctions then we’d be great but that’s unlikely and it’d never happen if we started moving a bunch of nukes right next to China’s border.

        I’m sorry if this is hard for you to hear but its the truth.

      • The Hard Man

        So keep trying to play nice and see how many nukes Pyongyang (with Beijing’s help) builds. Having no strategy for rolling them back is a recipe for disaster…unless you are a paid Wumao or an ignoramus.

  • Wink Mattler

    1) The liberal folly of non-proliferation was the stupidest liberal idea ever (which is saying a lot). The history of weapons is no advantage is ever permanent. When basket-case countries like North Korea can get nukes, anyone can. Which is why we should have “something” to supersede them. Reagan was right, Democrats are wrong (as always).
    2) Kim is a minor irritation, unless he nukes Seoul or Tokyo or LA or Frisco (which might be good for our country). In which case, we remove his nation and regime from the face of the Earth (unless it happens with Obozo still in the White House. Only 11 months of unprecedented weakness left!)
    3) As such, make the cost to China of propping-up North Korea more expensive. 500 million Chinese still live in poverty. They think little of food and gas going to North Koreans. Every dollar China spends on North Korea is one it doesn’t have for it’s own people – or military.

    We’ve got bigger problems to consider – like how to un-entangle ourselves from Merkel’s failing Euro-Caliphate.

    • Travis Frazier

      You use a lot of buzz terms but I don’t think you actually understand what you are talking about. In fact you are probably so biased that I doubt you even realize how silly you sound.

  • thebigf

    On one hand, ignoring North Korea is a good idea; the North Koreans are desperate to be accepted, curiously by America. And there is a strong likelihood the North would continue to develop nukes whether you engage them or not. And really, what are they going to do with them? Are they really going to use them? But as a defensive measure, they make some sense. Ignoring the North would hurt their feelings; Koreans do tend to be very, very sensitive. Personally, I would prefer engagement as it gives you the chance to make progress, to slow the development of nukes down and, who knows, perhaps even get concrete results. Helping the North to develop as China has in the last two decades can only be a positive thing. China may have a habit of rattling their sabres at small countries, but what are they going to do? Start a war? Not likely. Their economy is so tied up with the West they can’t disengage without massive social problems, possibly even a counter revolution. So while the participants can push and shove a bit, it’s really a stalemate, but let’s at least try to make it the best of all possible stalemates….

  • thebigf

    On one hand, ignoring North Korea is a good idea; the North Koreans are desperate to be accepted, curiously by America. And there is a strong likelihood the North would continue to develop nukes whether you engage them or not. And really, what are they going to do with them? Are they really going to use them? But as a defensive measure, they make some sense. Ignoring the North would hurt their feelings; Koreans do tend to be very, very sensitive. Personally, I would prefer engagement as it gives you the chance to make progress, to slow the development of nukes down and, who knows, perhaps even get concrete results. Helping the North to develop as China has in the last two decades can only be a positive thing. China may have a habit of rattling their sabres at small countries, but what are they going to do? Start a war? Not likely. Their economy is so tied up with the West they can’t disengage without massive social problems, possibly even a counter revolution. So while the participants can push and shove a bit, it’s really a stalemate, but let’s at least try to make it the best of all possible stalemates….