Of all the foreign policy challenges that Barack Obama inherited from George W. Bush, North Korea may prove the most intractable. Perceptions held by many South Koreans -- and many in American academic circles -- that President Obama would take a dramatically different approach toward Pyongyang, including an embrace of direct summit diplomacy, raised unrealistic expectations for a sea change in the U.S. strategy for North Korean denuclearization. Similarly, many also interpreted North Korea's abstention from criticizing the United States in its authoritative New Year's Day editorial as a preliminary signal that Pyongyang was reaching out to Washington.
At this early point in the new U.S. Administration, there appear to be no breakthroughs on the horizon. There are no easy answers to the problem of North Korea's continuing nuclear program. Neither the confrontational approach of the first six years of the Bush Administration nor the virtually unconditional engagement strategy of the final two Bush years achieved success.
The Six-Party Talks should continue, but should not be the only venue through which the U.S. engages North Korea. The U.S. may achieve greater success by changing the paradigm through adding additional lanes to the North Korea policy road. In implementing an expanded policy, the U.S. should integrate a comprehensive diplomatic approach with accompanying pressure, and should closely coordinate with allies South Korea and Japan. Leverage could be derived from energetically enforcing existing multilateral sanctions, expanding the Proliferation Security Initiative, and demanding compliance with hard-fought U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Prudence demands that all concerned parties remember the broken promises and shattered dreams that litter the Korean landscape. Kim Jong-il has shown great reluctance to make concessions or achieve real progress on diplomatic agreements with the United States or his neighbors. Pyongyang has repeatedly dashed the hopes of those advocating engagement. Perceived movement is habitually followed by threats, cancellations, and demands.
Nuclear negotiations are currently in a stalemate because North Korea rejects a verification protocol the Bush Administration claimed Pyongyang had previously accepted. Pyongyang's response -- the vitriolic attacks and near-severing of relations when South Korea and Japan merely stipulated conditionality and reciprocity -- bodes ill for those who hope that North Korea will accept future requirements arising from the Six-Party Talks.
The problem with North Korea's nuclear weapons program must be viewed as being embedded in the deeper problem the regime poses to the international system. What makes the problem so intractable and dangerous is the nature of the North Korean regime. Its self-imposed isolation, its horrid human rights record, its easily stirred state of belligerency toward South Korea, the massive conventional forces it maintains on the edge of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and its record of missile and nuclear technology proliferation gives a chilling context to the nuclear threat.
Of course, the United States' number one priority regarding the Korean peninsula must be the denuclearization of the North. But that must be part of a broader approach that addresses the entire set of problems posed by the regime.
North Korea's Nuclear Strategy
Pyongyang has historically shown itself to be patient during U.S. leadership transitions, parsing the selection of Administration officials and their statements for indications of potential policy changes. North Korea typically first seeks to attain its goals through formal and informal diplomatic means, manipulating multiple parallel channels of engagement, and playing one opponent against the other to gain negotiating leverage.
Despite welcoming Barack Obama's election, North Korea resorted to brinksmanship tactics after indications that the new U.S. Administration would not be as conciliatory as Pyongyang had anticipated. During his confirmation hearing, nominated Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn called Pyongyang a continuing threat, while during her hearing, nominated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirmed the U.S. would continue to demand the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea.
In an attempt to influence the formulation of the Obama Administration's North Korea policy, North Korea asserted in mid-January that it would denuclearize only after the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the U.S., the cessation of Washington's "hostile policy," and the removal of the U.S. protective nuclear umbrella over South Korea. Pyongyang has not defined the objectionable components of the U.S. approach, but it could include cessation of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, downsizing or removal of U.S. Forces Korea, a formal non-aggression pact, or abrogation of the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
Some analysts will dismiss the North Korean missive as simply "negotiating through headlines." Instead, the statements should be interpreted as a shot across the bow of the Obama Administration. Such statements are consistent with numerous remarks by North Korean officials that Pyongyang has little interest in abandoning its nuclear weapons. The rhetoric reflects standard North Korean negotiating tactics of raising the ante, deflecting criticism of its own noncompliance by blaming U.S. actions, insisting on equality of conditions in response to unequal violations, and renegotiating the existing agreement.
On a tactical negotiating level, Pyongyang seeks to undermine the U.S. push for a rigorous verification accord by demanding North Korean inspectors in South Korean and U.S. military facilities as well as on U.S. ships and submarines. On a more strategic level, North Korea sent a clear signal that it will not adopt a more accommodating stance post-Bush. Contrary to the unrealistically high expectations that the new Obama Administration will be able to achieve dramatic acceleration in North Korean denuclearization and an improvement in U.S.- North Korean relations, the Six-Party Talks will continue to have a tumultuous future.
Isolating the U.S. from Its Asian Allies. North Korea has long sought to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its Asian allies. North Korea tries to appeal to the South Korean populace by blaming the U.S. troop presence and joint military exercises as the principal impediments to peaceful Korean reunification. North Korea has engaged in an all-out effort to demonize the South's Lee Myung-bak government, blaming it for escalating inter-Korean tensions.
In its effort to undermine domestic support for President Lee, Pyongyang restricted South Korean access to the Gumgang joint economic zone, unleashed witheringly harsh rhetoric against President Lee and his principled policy toward the North, abrogated all inter-Korean agreements, threatened military confrontation in the West Sea, and warned of imminent war between the Koreas.
President Lee vowed to maintain South Korea's engagement policy toward the North, but conditioned economic, humanitarian, and political benefits on concrete progress toward denuclearization and North Korean implementation of political and economic reforms. Lee's policy is more consistent with the Six-Party Talks goal of using coordinated multilateral diplomatic measures to push for Pyongyang's implementation of its nuclear commitments.
North Korea also seeks to exclude Japan from the Six-Party Talks, accusing Tokyo of being an impediment to progress. Tokyo has conditioned the establishment of formal diplomatic relations and providing Japanese assistance in the nuclear negotiations on resolving uncertainties over the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea during the 1970s and 1980s. Tokyo lost considerable negotiating power on the abductee issue when the U.S. prematurely removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in October 2008 in return for a flawed verification protocol which Pyongyang later rejected.
This U.S. action angered Japan and led it to question U.S. willingness to address Japanese security concerns. Tokyo felt particularly betrayed by the Bush Administration's breaking of President Bush's personal pledge to keep North Korea on the terrorist list until progress was made on the abductee issue. National Security Council Senior Asia Director Dennis Wilder clearly stated in April 2007 that "We aren't going to de-link the abductee issue from the state sponsor of terrorism issue,"  and emphasized that President Bush would personally reaffirm that position to then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Playing the China Card.It has long been an article of faith among China watchers and U.S. policymakers that the road to Pyongyang runs through Beijing, meaning that the North Korean nuclear impasse could be resolved if only China made use of its considerable clout. During its first term, the Bush Administration deferred responsibility for North Korean denuclearization to China, repeatedly praising Beijing for its efforts.
North Korea's missile and nuclear tests in 2006, however, dramatically exposed China's inability or unwillingness to exercise significant influence over Pyongyang. This should not have come as a surprise since Beijing was previously unable to compel North Korea to give up either of its nuclear weapons programs, despite having identified it as a core strategic national interest of China. The Chinese leadership also failed to convince Kim Jong-il to implement Chinese-style economic reform, despite a decade of entreaties and aid to assist Pyongyang in transforming its economy.
Despite North Korea's provocations, China remains averse to confronting its recalcitrant neighbor for fear of provoking further escalatory behavior or triggering regime instability. China remains conflicted in its policy toward North Korea between those who advocate strong solidarity with Beijing's Communist ally and those pushing for improving relations with the U.S. by distancing itself from Pyongyang.
North Korea takes advantage of Beijing's position by using China as a buffer against international pressure tactics and to diffuse implementation of punitive measures, undercut U.S. policy, and constrain real progress in the Six-Party Talks. When confronted with North Korean stonewalling, Beijing repeatedly called upon the U.S. to show greater "flexibility," for example, to offer even more concessions.
Likelihood of Increased Tensions
If North Korea concludes it has been too long ignored or has not achieved its objectives through direct engagement, it will initiate a carefully calibrated escalation of tensions. Kim Jong-il will be emboldened by perceptions that Washington does not have a military option due to Seoul's proximity to the DMZ, the overextension of U.S. military forces, and a potential face-off with Iran.
Pyongyang typically signals its intent to engage in provocative behavior by increasing the bellicosity and authoritativeness of its official propaganda. Potential options include restarting operations at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, prohibiting actions in the Joint Security Area, extensive out-of-cycle military training exercises near the DMZ or the maritime demarcation line in the West Sea, a long-range missile test, or preparations for a second nuclear test.
North Korea may conduct such actions in conjunction with diplomatic entreaties to gain additional concessions for returning to the status quo. Pyongyang could also choose to deflect attention from its noncompliance with denuclearization requirements by re-engaging South Korea or Japan or switching to another diplomatic venue such as offering to resume missile negotiations.
The Threatening Nature of the North Korean Regime
Although getting Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons programs has been a preeminent U.S. strategic objective, North Korea poses additional risks to its neighbors. North Korea has an estimated 600 Scud missiles that can reach any part of South Korea as well as 200 No-Dong missiles that can strike Japan. These missiles may be capable of delivering nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. North Korea has forward-deployed 70 percent of its ground forces within 90 miles of the DMZ. In addition to three conventional corps alongside the DMZ, Pyongyang has deployed two mechanized corps, an armor corps, and an artillery corps.
The North Korean government is actively engaged in a wide range of illegal activities, including counterfeiting of U.S. and other countries' currencies, money laundering, and production of illegal narcotics and counterfeit pharmaceuticals. The U.S. government and courts have identified North Korean complicity in manufacturing and distributing $100 "super note" bills.
In 2005, the U.S. Treasury Department froze North Korean accounts in a Macau bank that were used for money laundering. Despite significantly hampering North Korean illicit activity, the Treasury Department was forced to back away from the enforcement of U.S. and international law in order to facilitate "progress" in the Six-Party Talks.
North Korea has one of the world's most brutal regimes, inflicting horrendous human rights abuses on its citizens. The Department of State cites arbitrary imprisonment, killings, torture, forced abortions, absence of religious freedom, and medical experimentation on prisoners. Pyongyang operates an extensive gulag system for as many as 200,000 political prisoners.
During 10 years of progressive leadership, South Korea was resistant to criticizing North Korea's human rights record out of concern it would undermine Seoul's engagement policy. The Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments were rightly castigated by the U.S. and international community for turning a blind eye to the North Korean abuses and doing little to facilitate the movement of North Korean refugees into the South.
Uncertainties over Kim Jong-il's Health
Questions over the status of Kim Jong-il's health overshadow the Six-Party Talks as well as engagement with North Korea on a range of issues. It is likely that Kim suffered at least one stroke in late 2008 leading to at least partial debilitation. Pyongyang has since responded with a series of photos to convince the outside world the North Korean leader is healthy. Uncertainties remain because some, if not all, of the photos were doctored or are known to have been taken before his illness.
Because North Korea has not announced a formal succession plan, there are concerns of the implications of Kim's sudden death or incapacitation. While North Korean authorities may be ready to implement an existing plan, the outside world remains fearful of the potential for instability in a nuclear weapons state.
There has been great speculation over the years over Kim's potential successor, with the most likely candidates being one of Kim's three sons, his brother-in-law Chang Song-taek, or a collective leadership. Regardless of who is chosen, it is unlikely there will be any significant change in North Korea's resistance to economic and political reform or to more open engagement with the outside world. Nor would it be likely that Pyongyang would be less obstructionist during the Six-Party Talks.
The new leader, lacking the inherent legitimacy of Kim Jong-il or of his father Kim Il-song, would be heavily dependent on the leadership elite, who see their fate as directly tied to a continuation of the present regime. They would resist any attempt at altering policy as risking regime instability and threatening their way of life. The new leader may have to pursue an even more hard-line policy to ensure continued internal support.
Obama's Approach to North Korea
President Obama has asserted the need for "sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy" with North Korea. He pledged to be "firm and unyielding in our commitment to a non-nuclear Korean peninsula," and vowed not to "take the military option off the table" in order to achieve "the complete and verifiable elimination of all of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, as well as its past proliferation activities, including with Syria."
He stated that "sanctions are a critical part of our leverage to pressure North Korea to act. They should only be lifted based on performance. If the North Koreans do not meet their obligations, we should move quickly to re-impose sanctions that have been waived, and consider new restrictions going forward." The Obama Administration's first official act toward North Korea was to impose new sanctions on three North Korean companies for violating a U.S. law aimed at curtailing the proliferation of technology related to missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
Although there might be a perception of a major shift in U.S. policy, President Obama will maintain much of the engagement strategy of the final two years of the Bush Administration. Although President Obama may be more willing than was President Bush to engage in senior-level diplomatic engagement, including a potential summit with Kim Jong-il, it is unlikely that such tactical changes will achieve verifiable North Korean denuclearization. However direct he makes his policy, President Obama will face the same constraints in achieving tangible progress with North Korea as his predecessors experienced.
During its last two years, the Bush Administration engaged in the direct, bilateral diplomacy with Pyongyang that the Obama Administration advocates today. Yet there has been continued North Korean intransigence, non-compliance, and brinksmanship. The Bush engagement also resulted in the abandonment of important principles, including enforcement of international law and attaining sufficient verification measures. Nor have Six-Party Talks diplomats yet begun real negotiations on the elimination of North Korean nuclear weapons three years after Pyongyang agreed to do so.
Avoiding the Mistakes of the Past
As President Obama assembles his foreign-policy making team and translates vague campaign pronouncements to specific policy recommendations, he should look to history for guidance. This history clearly advises that he avoid several current recommendations made by a variety of American, South Korean, and Japanese experts. Specifically, the President should:
What the U.S. Should Do
Getting Nuclear Negotiations Right. For the United States and its allies, addressing the North Korean nuclear threat must remain the paramount national security objective in Northeast Asia. As President Obama develops his approach to North Korea, the U.S. should:
Expanding Policy Beyond the Six-Party Talks
Despite their preeminent importance, the Six-Party Talks need not be, nor should be, the only focus of North Korea policy. There are other areas of concern, as well as other opportunities for transforming the North Korean regime:
Washington should adopt a comprehensive, integrated approach with Pyongyang by adding lanes to the policy road.
Negotiating venues should be pursued bilaterally or multilaterally depending on their impact on a country's national interests.
Not all forms of engagement should be linked to the Six-Party Talks.
The U.S. should denounce North Korea's human rights abuses and take steps to improve living conditions for its citizens. The U.S. should:
The U.S. should expand public diplomacy to promote greater exposure of North Korean officials and citizens to the outside world. Increased North Korean exposure to information is a useful long-term means to begin the transformation of the nature of the regime, as took place in Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
It has never been a question of whether to engage North Korea, but of how to do so. It is critical to understand that engagement is a means rather than an end,and it is equally important to control how engagement is applied. For the time being, the U.S. should continue diplomatic attempts to reduce the North Korean nuclear threat. The likelihood for success, though, is not high. Pyongyang's recent demands for new conditions in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons run counter to three Six-Party Talks agreements and threaten to derail the nuclear negotiations once again.
While the U.S. should continue to strive for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear threat, employing a combination of all instruments of national power, the Obama Administration should also accept that there simply may be no set of inducements to ensure North Korean abandonment of its nuclear weapons. There is a growing sense that Pyongyang's antics and stalling tactics are not merely negotiating ploys, but instead are designed to achieve international acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power. North Korean officials have repeatedly indicated that is precisely their intention.
The U.S. should establish non-flexible deadlines so that Pyongyang cannot continue to drag out negotiations. In addition, it would be prudent for Washington to initiate contingency plans with South Korea and Japan should the Six-Party Talks no longer seem to be a viable policy option.
Equally important, the Obama Administration should give new context to the nuclear issue by expanding the North Korea policy agenda. North Korea's nuclear and associated weapons programs should remain the most critical focus of U.S. policy. But the problem with North Korea is bigger than that. The United States should actively address the North Korean problem across the range of threats it poses to the international system. This way, the U.S. can confront the problem more comprehensively and fundamentally, as well as in mutually reinforcing ways. Adding lanes to the road will improve the prospects for success in every lane.
Bruce Klingner is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.
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Formally known as the "Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation Between South and North Korea."