The return of Stalinist North Korea, and we're lost
Like the Lilliputians, North Korea will continue to tie down the world’s Gulliver. Both, in their own way, are status quo powers. The longer Washington waits for the Kim regime to collapse under its own weight, the more dangerous Northeast Asia becomes. Watch this space
The computer screens at Sony Pictures Corporation went dark and then flickered back to life with a ghoulish image and threatening message on November 24, 2014, and thus began the most brazen cyberattack in memory. Two weeks later, a shadowy group called The Guardians of Peace, which claimed responsibility for the attack, demanded that the company pull its release of the upcoming film The Interview, a dark comedy about assassinating North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
The group’s demand immediately led to allegations that the government of the world’s most isolated totalitarian state had started a new chapter in its long history of aggression against the outside world.
The North Korean government had condemned the movie back in June, employing its usual threatening bluster in a letter to the United Nations that vowed to take a “decisive and merciless countermeasure” if the movie were released. Pyongyang’s later denial of responsibility was dismissed in the wake of the FBI’s conclusion that North Korea was indeed the cyber culprit, and new sanctions were announced by the Obama administration in January 2015.
The alacrity with which the American government and public accepted North Korea’s culpability revealed the degree to which the hermit dictatorship has carved out a unique role for itself as the nation-state equivalent of a psychotic—a ruthless and dangerous enigma seemingly insulated from being held accountable for its actions thanks to American and Asian fears that pushing it too far might result in carnage on the Korean peninsula.
That is not to say that North Korea yet represents an existential threat to America or to any of its neighbors, or that it has the capability to act wholly unrestrained. Rather, the North Korean government has perfected its ability to confound and disorient its antagonists and thereby achieve its single, overriding goal: the continued survival of the regime.
In traditional Confucian political theory, a dynasty was deemed legitimate only if it reached the third generation. This was the feat achieved by the Kim family in December 2011 with the accession to power of Kim Jong Un, grandson of the founder (and now “Eternal President”) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Il Sung. He was a Soviet agent put into place in 1948 in response to the establishment of the Republic of Korea by the United States south of the 38th parallel.
The danger posed by the North was made clear by its 1950 invasion of the South and the ensuing three years of devastating warfare. That conflict, still officially only temporarily ceased through an armistice, froze in place the political division of the peninsula and led to a six-decade standoff that sees no hope of ending anytime soon.
Throughout the Cold War, Moscow was the North’s primary patron. China, which had disengaged from Pyongyang in the 1970s when Mao Zedong opened relations with the West, stepped in to replace the Soviet Union after its collapse, thereby tying itself to a regime widely seen as one of the most destabilizing actors in the world.
A short list of North Korea’s acts of aggression and atrocities include the use of mass starvation as a means of population and policy control, operating concentration camps for dissidents, assassinating South Korean officials, sinking a South Korean naval vessel, kidnapping South Korean and Japanese citizens from their own countries, pursuing a nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile program while proliferating both technologies and conducting three nuclear tests, and counterfeiting U.S. currency while smuggling drugs and illicit tobacco.
The allegations that Pyongyang was responsible for the cyberattack on Sony Pictures fit squarely into the regime’s history of provocation and served as a reminder to the world that North Korea is relentless when it comes to posing a threat. Yet Barack Obama, like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush before him, still struggles to come up with a viable policy toward Pyongyang. The question many ask is why this Lilliputian state continues to tie down the American Gulliver.
One answer to that question may be found in a reassessment of U.S. strategy and policy toward North Korea. The foundation of Washington’s policy toward the Korean peninsula is the assumption that only the presence of both American troops and the U.S.–South Korean alliance deters Pyongyang from risking war to unify the peninsula. From that perspective, a case can be made that U.S. policy has been successful, in that North Korea has not invaded the South since 1950.
Yet as South Korea has modernized over the past 30 years, its strength relative to the North has dramatically increased, making a North Korean victory in any war far less likely. Pyongyang has responded to this trend by trying to develop the ultimate safeguard, nuclear weapons, which not only ensure its survival but also have prompted an endless round of negotiations leading to numerous concessions that have wound up strengthening the regime.
Pyongyang understands that America is a status quo force in its region, committed to preventing change in Asia’s balance of power. Its strategic success came in getting the Clinton administration in the mid-1990s to commit to an open-ended negotiating policy, with the chimera of denuclearization tied to an equally unrealistic hope that relations between North Korea and its liberal neighbors could be “normalized.”
Once an American president had adopted the course of negotiation, no matter how unfruitful, future administrations risked being seen as confrontational and destabilizing if they did not follow the same course. Successive U.S. administrations seem to have convinced themselves that negotiating is a prudent policy not only because it might one day achieve our goal of denuclearizing the peninsula, but also because it’s a delaying tactic that gives time for the odious Kim regime to collapse under its own brutality.
Such hopes have now gone unfulfilled for more than 20 years. Instead, the patient waiting of both parties’ administrations has led to no change in the North’s nature. Worse yet, the last two decades of negotiations have left us with a nuclear-capable North Korea, the exact opposite of Washington’s goal.
The former U.S. general in charge of NORAD recently stated that he treated the nation of 25 million people as a “practical threat,” and the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea testified before Congress in the autumn of 2014, saying that Pyongyang could build a nuclear weapon and mate it to a ballistic missile. Recent reports indicate that North Korea already has several rudimentary nuclear weapons and could have as many as 70 by the year 2020.
A former high-ranking diplomat who negotiated directly with the North Koreans recently told me that he now believes the North will never give up its weapons, something outside observers have been arguing for years.
The history of U.S. relations with North Korea thus offers a sobering lesson on the limits of diplomacy, the trap of wishful thinking, and the danger of misunderstanding an adversary.
If Washington is to avoid committing the same mistakes in the future, a review of its past failures is a necessary exercise. The template for North Korean extortion and U.S. accommodation was set right at the beginning of the nuclear crisis, with the 1994 Agreed Framework.
The very idea of entering an agreement with perhaps the world’s last remaining totalitarian state should have raised eyebrows, but at the time, it was considered a diplomatic coup. After all, U.S. bombers were said to have been on their way to take out the Yongbyon nuclear facility when former President Jimmy Carter, acting as an intermediary, hammered out the agreement in June with Kim Il Sung, who turned around and died suddenly the following month.
The agreement to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear program promised over $4 billion in aid to North Korea in the form of building light-water reactors to replace the illicit Yongbyon plutonium reactor, as well as the delivery of 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil each year until the first light-water reactor was built. Just months after the signing of the pact, however, North Korea shot down a U.S. military helicopter over the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), killing an American pilot.
As if this act of war was not enough, by the late 1990s, the North was receiving uranium-enrichment technology from Pakistan and the A.Q. Khan network. Simultaneously, Pyongyang used the excuse of a delay in some of the promised oil supplies, and the long time required to start construction of the light-water reactor, to threaten a resumption of nuclear development.
When the Bush administration confronted the North in 2003 with evidence that Pyongyang was pursuing a covert enriched-uranium program, the U.S. got the UN to impose sanctions. Yet after Pyongyang announced it was withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the American desire to avoid a crisis once again won out, and the Bush team doubled down on the diplomatic option with a new set of negotiations.
It created an entirely new forum, the so-called Six Party Talks, to present North Korea with a multilateral diplomatic front alongside South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia.
It was during the Six Party Talks that Pyongyang perfected its strategy of delay, cheating, and blackmail. Enmeshed in the war on terror after 9/11, Washington seemed all too happy to let negotiations drag on. The Six Party Talks began in 2003, but it was not until four years later, during its fifth round, that any significant agreement on closing down Yongbyon was reached.
This came after North Korea had conducted its first nuclear test, in October 2006, a form of intimidation that should have scuttled the talks. Instead of concluding that Pyongyang would never give up its nuclear program once it successfully demonstrated a breakthrough capability, the Bush administration continued to pin its hopes on the increasingly irrelevant negotiations.
So desperate were the Americans to keep up diplomacy that the White House acquiesced in surrendering one particularly potent piece of pressure: the freezing of North Korean assets held in dollars in a Macau bank. What seemed to be a possible Rosetta Stone to putting pressure on the regime itself was sacrificed on the altar of good faith in an attempt to get the North Koreans to live up to their promise to close Yongbyon.
Sweetening the deal was a U.S. decision later in 2007 to remove Pyongyang from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, thus handing the North a moral victory, as well as removing the threat of certain financial sanctions. The North indeed closed Yongbyon in mid-2007 but continued to enrich uranium and failed to provide a full accounting of all elements of the nuclear program.
Six years of labor were scuttled in 2009 when the talks collapsed. Pyongyang was probably testing the new Obama administration when it announced in early 2009 a ballistic-missile test, an activity prohibited by a 2006 UN Security Council resolution. The April launch was a failure, but UN condemnation gave the North the excuse to expel inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency from the shuttered Yongbyon plant and to announce the restart of the nuclear program. The following month, the North conducted its second nuclear test, resulting in yet another UN Security Council resolution banning such behavior.
To its credit, the Obama administration did not rush into trying to get the North Koreans back to the table after the events of 2009. Yet lines of communication were kept open even as the dying Kim Jong Il lashed out during 2010 with two atrocities: the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, resulting in the deaths of 46 sailors, and the artillery bombardment of a South Korean island near the maritime border with the North. Pyongyang had come as close to the point of no return as possible, but again, in desiring to avoid a confrontation, pressure from Washington was reported to have kept the South Korean government from militarily retaliating.
The events of 2009–10 should have put paid to any thoughts of further engagement with the mercurial and dangerous North Korean government. Yet the Obama administration decided to gamble that the new leader, Kim Jong Un, who had succeeded his father at the end of 2011, might prove to be more tractable. Despite repeated North Korean violations of past agreements, the Obama team rushed into a February 2012 Leap Day Agreement, by which the North pledged a moratorium on missile tests and uranium processing.
There should have been no surprise in Washington when North Korea violated the agreement. The ink was barely dry on the deal when Pyongyang launched a “satellite” in April in a thinly disguised missile test. The Obama administration made an even worse calculation when it tied food aid to the missile-moratorium agreement in the 2012 Leap Day Agreement, and then cut off that aid when the North broke the agreement.
Pyongyang simply scored another propaganda coup. This most recent series of provocations was capped off in February 2013, when the regime concluded its third nuclear test, one registering 7 kilotons, double the size of the 2009 test.
Given this history, how should we judge America’s North Korea policy? Is it misguided? Unrealistic? Outmatched? Or is it a prudent and calculated response to an unpredictable foe?
American policymakers surely understand that staying in power is the raison d’être of the Kim regime, and yet they apply a different calculus, at least in their public statements, when they promote negotiations. They talk about helping North Korea end its isolation, for example, or becoming a member of the international community, as if these are goals that hold any interest for Pyongyang.
Worse yet, committed American negotiators seem honestly to believe that they can get the regime to bargain away the very card that ensures its continued existence. Somehow, the thinking goes, America can make the deal just sweet enough to override the self-preservation instinct inside Kim’s inner circle.
If Washington is to break the cycle of being played by the North, then a new realism must replace the old policy. Experts are wont to say that there are no good options when it comes to dealing with North Korea.
That may well be so, but there are certainly bad options. One bad option was taking Pyongyang off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, as the Bush administration did in 2008. Even if Pyongyang proves ultimately not to have been responsible for the Sony hack, it should be put back on the list—which not only makes a moral statement, but also would trigger some financial sanctions that could have a more meaningful impact on the regime.
Ending such financial sanctions, like those placed on the Macau-based Banco Delta Asia, was another bad option chosen by the Bush administration. Reinstituting serious sanctions seems an effective way to pressure the regime for any future provocation.
But even if we credit Pyongyang for playing its weak hand spectacularly well, it has not achieved all its success alone. American policymakers seem allergic to recognizing, or at least publicly acknowledging, that other powerful states are frustrating U.S. attempts to isolate and punish North Korea. Russia and China, in particular, have consistently watered down UN sanctions against North Korean individuals and companies.
The Obama administration must also drop the wishful thinking deriving from the Bush era that China will somehow put pressure on Pyongyang to rein in its destructive behavior. In truth, Beijing appears satisfied to have a North Korea that keeps knocking the United States and its allies off balance.
That is one reason it has become North Korea’s chief food supplier and has accounted for nearly 90 percent of its energy imports, as well as running a $1.25 billion trade deficit as a de facto subsidy to Pyongyang. More dangerously, there is abundant evidence that Beijing has helped facilitate, or at least ignored, the North’s proliferation of banned technologies and possibly illicit economic activities.
Recent calls by former chief American negotiator Christopher Hill for a “strategic reengagement” with Beijing over North Korea thus promise to lead the U.S. down the same path of wishful thinking and being tactically outmaneuvered.
And, even if Beijing were suddenly for some reason to begin working in concert with Washington, then Kim Jong Un might find a new patron in Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who in December invited the North Korean leader to Moscow right as tension between Washington and Pyongyang was heating up over the Sony incident. In short, Washington must face up to the fact that it alone must deal with North Korea.
Given the regime’s success so far, we should have no expectation that North Korea will change its tactics. It will surely conduct more nuclear and missile tests, and the West has long known that Pyongyang has its own cyber-hacking department, which has undoubtedly seen the initial reaction of U.S. companies whose computers were hacked, and learned lessons for the future.
Like the Lilliputians, North Korea will continue to tie down the world’s Gulliver. Both, in their own way, are status quo powers. The longer Washington waits for the Kim regime to collapse under its own weight, the more dangerous Northeast Asia becomes. Perhaps the American bet is right. But it currently appears that U.S. diplomatic miscues and unrealistic policies have made it seem more likely than not that the Kim regime will survive for years to come.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in Asian regional security and political issues. Before joining AEI, Auslin was an associate professor of history at Yale University. His articles can be read here
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