North Korea’s fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9 — its second this year — and its raft of missile tests have left nations groping for an appropriate response, one that could arrest Pyongyang’s inexorable march toward atomic disaster.
Numerous rounds of sanctions, formal talks and fleeting agreements by countries and groupings have failed to induce the North to give up its nuclear weapons program. The U.S. policy of “strategic patience” under the administration of President Barack Obama — in which Washington has attempted to wait out a sanctions-crippled Pyongyang — has yielded few gains.
Some observers even believe the policy may have had the opposite effect, fueling leader Kim Jong Un’s drive to create missiles capable of delivering atomic bombs to U.S. and Japanese shores, something the regime views as key to its survival.
The policy has also been hobbled by China, the North’s only patron. Fearful of spurring an economically paralyzing refugee crisis and potentially putting U.S. forces at its border, Beijing has been reluctant to agree to more stringent sanctions — or to fully enforce existing measures.
“Strategic patience as a policy is a clear failure,” Van Jackson, an associate professor at the U.S. Defense Department’s Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, told The Japan Times. “Virtually everyone I ask outside of government believes strategic patience is only worsening conditions on the peninsula. An alternative is needed.”
A growing number of experts say it is now time to try a different and possibly unappetizing approach.
Writing on the influential 38 North blog on Sept. 12, Siegfried Hecker, a Stanford professor who has traveled to North Korea and who formerly directed the Los Alamos weapons lab in New Mexico, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, was blunt in his assessment of what was needed to rein in Pyongyang.
“What’s missing is diplomacy, as much as Washington may find it repugnant to deal with the Kim regime,” Hecker wrote. He said the North, left unchecked, would likely be able to hit the U.S. with nuclear-tipped missiles in a decade.
A first step in any new engagement with the North — now de facto nuclear power — could involve a scaling back of ambitions, including the long-stated goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
“In my view a new approach is needed to the DPRK despite this being problematic politically for the U.S., ROK and Japan,” said Tariq Rauf, director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. DPRK and ROK refer to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea.
With the U.S. presidential election just weeks away, Rauf said the outgoing Obama administration’s first priority over the next 3½ months should be to engage behind the scenes with the North, with no publicity or media, in an attempt to agree on a set of guiding principles that would constitute the basis for a future political agreement to reduce tensions, address all sides’ security concerns and seek the North’s return to the negotiating table.
“A short-term deal on a suspension of or moratorium on nuclear and missile tests could be proposed by the U.S. to the DPRK in return for food assistance through the United Nations World Food Programme and relaxation of nonmilitary sanctions,” said Rauf, who served as head of the Verification and Security Policy Coordination department at the International Atomic Energy Agency from 2002 to 2011.
Any verification could be carried out by a team of experts from China and Russia, Rauf said, since the IAEA has lost much credibility in the eyes of the North over the last six years given what he called “unnecessary condemnations” of its nuclear program.
With the suspended six-party talks on life support after Pyongyang pulled out in 2009, an incremental step like this could lay the groundwork for reviving them in the long-term.
Just a day ahead of the Sept. 9 atomic test, there had been signs that the White House was open to such a fundamental rethink of U.S. policy toward the North.
Speaking after the conclusion of a Southeast Asian summit in Vientiane, Obama said his administration was “constantly examining other strategies.”
“If there are any signs, at any point, that North Korea is serious about dialogue around denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula, that we’ll be ready to have those conversations,” Obama said.
According to Stephan Haggard, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who has written extensively on North Korea, U.S. policy has always taken two tracks: a willingness to negotiate while at the same time exerting pressure.
“The U.S. has gradually dropped preconditions for talks down to practically nothing; basically ‘just show up willing to discuss denuclearization,’ ” Haggard said. “But it is hard to take a diplomatic initiative when North Korea has shown no interest in discussing its weapons and missile program.”
Indeed, years of reneged agreements have left much of the U.S. government unwilling to trust North Korea in negotiations. Officials in Washington and elsewhere remain deeply hesitant about green-lighting any direct talks with Pyongyang, fearing the political fallout if the North again backs out on a deal.
And with the Kim regime having bound itself so tightly to becoming a recognized nuclear power — even enshrining this in the nation’s constitution — the rewards of returning to talks remain questionable for both sides.
Rather than bolstered engagement, said the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies’ Jackson, greater consideration should instead be given to the military dimension of North Korea policy.
“Talking about denuclearization and the need for engagement is as impractical and ineffective as emphasis on sanctions; neither will yield a desirable change in North Korea’s nuclear trajectory,” Jackson said. “The next steps for the United States and South Korea need to be preparing for limited war against a nuclear-armed adversary.”
Jackson believes that by holding onto its old ways, the alliance — including Japan — is unintentionally making any conflict more likely to go nuclear.
“The Korean Peninsula’s best chance of avoiding a mushroom-cloud fate is by adapting to — not downplaying — the unique risks and requirements of deterrence against a second-tier nuclear-armed adversary,” he wrote in an essay for Foreign Policy this month. “Two steps toward adaptation are in order: reducing the role of nukes in alliance military signaling and planning and curbing the objectives and scope of conflicts that break out.”
Whatever tack emerges as the dominant method of dealing with the only state to have tested nuclear arms in the 21st century, it is unlikely to be one that will rid the Korean Peninsula of atomic weapons.
“It is always natural to believe that problems like this can be solved,” said Haggard of the University of California, San Diego. “But it is possible they cannot be solved in the way that is commonly thought, that is, denuclearization. We are probably in a world where the options are elsewhere: maintaining an adequate deterrent and making it costly for North Korea to continue to arm.
“This is not optimal, but may not be worse than the alternatives.”