North Korea continues to confound the world. The country’s economy is on the rocks; it is estimated to have shrunk by more than 50 percent between 1992 and 1996. The government is unable to feed its own people; hundreds of thousands are thought to have died as a result of malnutrition-related diseases since 1995. Although its rival to the south has broken with years of hostility to offer a “sunshine policy” that promises increased ties and a form of detente, Pyongyang has responded with unceasing venom.
Despite its apparent weakness — and even as it demands international assistance to help overcome its difficulties — North Korea continues its belligerence. In August, Pyongyang launched a multistage missile, a move that threatens to alter the strategic balance in Northeast Asia. Satellite surveillance has revealed suspicious sites that suggest the North is pursuing a clandestine nuclear-weapons program. And in response to the Seoul government’s unprecedented peace overtures, the North has repeatedly sent spies into the South and apparently into Japan as well, as revealed by last month’s encounter with two suspected intelligence-gathering boats.
As a result, there is a growing sense that the Korean Peninsula is again on the brink of crisis. Hopes that the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework, designed to cap Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program, would provide the basis for a more comprehensive peace have crumbled. A growing number of decision-makers in the U.S. and Japan, at least, have concluded that the 1994 accord is flawed. Even supporters, such as Brookings Institution Japan specialist Mike Mochizuki, concede that the Agreed Framework “is no longer sufficient.”
Speaking this week at a Tokyo conference on North Korea sponsored by the Center for Global Partnership, Mochizuki explained that North Korean brinkmanship, questions about its commitment to dismantling its nuclear program and growing concerns about Pyongyang’s missile development efforts have undermined U.S. support for the framework. In addition, the two assumptions driving U.S. diplomacy — that the North would collapse before the framework expired in 10 years and that its military would be weakened in the interim — look increasingly misplaced. Most analysts expect the regime to survive the current hardships, and by all appearances the military’s position within the hermetic state has been strengthened.
Frustration and the realization that time might actually be on North Korea’s side have pushed U.S. decision-makers toward a policy review. Congress has announced that it will not fund the Agreed Framework without confirmation of North Korean compliance with its terms.
The review, headed by former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, will not be completed for a few more weeks. But it is widely anticipated that his report will call for broader engagement with the North, as several reports on relations with the North have already done. The problem is no one is quite sure what broader engagement means.
There are already bilateral and quadrilateral talks. There are nuclear talks, missile talks, humanitarian-aid talks. The Agreed Framework itself ranges from nuclear weapons programs to economic relations. It is hard to find a level on which the U.S. and North Korea are not already engaged.
What is clear is that North Korea’s missile program is a far more significant security threat — and diplomatic challenge — than had been thought. Shortly after U.S. intelligence experts estimated that it would take years for a country to develop a missile capable of reaching the U.S., North Korea tested the multistage Taepodong II that does just that. That refocused U.S. attention and shifted U.S. priorities. Curiously, it also brought Japan and the U.S. closer together.
Originally, the U.S. made nuclear restraint its top priority. Washington framed the issue globally, arguing that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty had to remain inviolate. If North Korea violated the nuclear taboo, then other countries might also.
The U.S. saw the missile issue in similar terms. Washington’s policy focused on the transfer of technology to other regions, such as the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent. Japan, on the other hand, focused on deployment since its territory is physically threatened by even a short-range missile. But the Taepodong test forced the U.S. to face a new reality: a direct North Korean threat to its own territory. Missile-defense advocates were quick to see the new North Korean capability as the best way to drum up support for their policy. They used the test to make what was once a foreign policy issue a first-order national security threat.
Mochizuki argued that the U.S. now sees North Korea “trying to develop new strategic capabilities that alter the regional strategic balance.” But this new clarity of vision can’t overlook the biggest problem faced by U.S. policymakers: They have few carrots left with which they can entice Pyongyang to give up its missile program. After all, every country has the sovereign right to develop its own missile technology. Economic incentives are already included in the Agreed Framework.
The key is implementation of the Perry report, said Scott Snyder, a program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace and another speaker at the conference. A “kind of consensus” has emerged in the U.S. on the need to engage North Korea more broadly, he said, but the devil is in the details, including the question of who will run the program once it is designed. Perry will return to academia, and there are few individuals with the political clout and the stamina needed to work with both the North Koreans and Congress. (In an ominous aside, Snyder also cautioned that “North Korea can’t jump high enough to make Congress happy.”)
Coordination between the U.S., Japan and South Korea is essential if any policy is to succeed. Engagement requires sticks and carrots, and each government has something North Korea wants and needs.
Pyongyang will do its best to separate the three. Its historic reliance on bluster, blackmail and brinkmanship, and its historic tendency to play large powers off against each other, do not augur well for the future. As Snyder explained, “good faith,” the cornerstone of most negotiations, is conspicuously absent in this case. After all, the current crisis has been triggered by the suspicion that North Korea has already violated the Agreed Framework.
That puts the U.S. and its allies in a bind. “The absence of trust means that enforcement and verification is needed. But without trust it is difficult to design compliance procedures,” said Snyder. “Our policy should be both firm (through deterrence) and generous (through inducements). The stronger side can afford to be generous and move first, but sustained generosity is contingent on North Korea’s cooperative response.”
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