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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The Threatening Nature of the North
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
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
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
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
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:
- Not double down on a losing hand. The
limited action-for-action strategy of the Six-Party Talks has
failed; therefore, some advocate expanding the rewards to offer
North Korea an even larger deal. This is akin to urging a farmer
who has lost every hand of poker against a wily dealer to go all in
and bet his homestead in hopes of winning it all back -- and more -- on
- Not put the cart before the horse. Since
Kim Jong-il makes all important decisions, some believe that the
U.S. should propose a summit between Obama and Kim to avoid months
of haggling by lower-level officials. This wishful thinking is
reminiscent of the Clinton Administration, when a senior official
stated, "If only we could get the President in the same room as Kim
Jong-il, the force of Bill's personality is so strong that we'd get
all of our objectives!" A U.S.- North Korean summit without
assurances of an extensive and thoroughly verifiable
denuclearization agreement would be premature and
- Not provide concessions to appease North
Korean hardliners. North Korean intransigence has been depicted
as a short-term manifestation of a hard-line faction. In this
unlikely scenario, Kim Jong-il is really a closet capitalist who
has somehow fallen under the influence of evil Korean "neocons."
This is despite ample evidence that Kim rules with an iron fist and
tolerates no dissent. North Korean negotiators, like used-car
salesmen, are always happy to promise to "work with you," provided
you cough up "just a few more" concessions to convince Kim that
they have reached a good deal.
- Not be ambiguous in order to achieve
"progress." The Clinton and Bush Administrations both ran into
trouble when they acquiesced to North Korean demands for vague text
instead of clear requirements and timelines. Deferring rather than
resolving issues provides a false sense of advancement and allows
Pyongyang to exploit loopholes and avoid its denuclearization
- Not sacrifice U.S. allies on the altar of
denuclearization. South Korea and Japanbecame increasingly
suspicious of U.S. eagerness to achieve progress in Six-Party Talks
regardless of the cost to the alliance. The Bush Administration's
premature removal of North Korea from the U.S. list of state
sponsors of terrorism and its unwillingness to integrate South
Korean and Japanese security concerns into the Six-Party Talks
strained bilateral relations.
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.
- Affirm that its objective is the complete and verifiable
denuclearization of North Korea. President Obama should state
unequivocally that Washington will not accept North Korea as a
nuclear weapons state. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's
confirmation-hearing testimony properly affirmed this goal, and
also emphasized the requirements for complete and verifiable
denuclearization as well as a full accounting by Pyongyang of its
uranium-based nuclear weapons program and proliferation activities.
(Her subsequently expressed doubts about the existence of a North
Korean uranium program were factually wrong and misguided.)
- Develop, in conjunction with North Korea's neighbors, a
strategic blueprint clearly defining the desired end-state,
objectives, and requirements for all parties, as well as a roadmap
delineating the linkages, schedule, and metrics for achieving
- Insist that North Korea comply with its existing Six-Party
Talks agreements and not allow Pyongyang to use brinksmanship
and threats to redefine the parameters of the negotiations.
Existing North Korean requirements include: providing a data
declaration on its nuclear weapons inventory, uranium weapons
program, and proliferation activities; disabling all nuclear
facilities; and accepting a sufficiently rigorous and intrusive
verification protocol that meets international standards.
- Require that subsequent Six-Party Talks joint statements are
sufficiently detailed to prevent North Korea from exploiting
loopholes in order to avoid full compliance.
- Resist being drawn into a debate over whether North Korea
has made the "strategic decision" to give up its nuclear
weapons. Pyongyang has signed three Six-Party Talks agreements
that commit it to full denuclearization. Washington must make clear
that anything less than full compliance by North Korea constitutes
a violation that puts Pyongyang into jeopardy of not receiving
- Reject North Korean claims that the U.S.'s "hostile policy"
is to blame for the Six-Party Talks impasse. The President and
Secretary of State should emphasize that U.S. Forces Korea is a
direct response to North Korea's 1950 invasion of, and continued
belligerent threats to, Seoul. The U.S. should insist that
Pyongyang fully comply with its denuclearization commitments before
initiating any discussions of conventional force reductions or a
peace treaty formally ending the Korean War.
- Emphasize that North Korea's refusal of dialogue with Seoul
and Tokyo prevents South Korea and Japan from providing economic
and diplomatic benefits called for in the Six-Party Talks
process as well as preventing bilateral development
- Strengthen its alliances with South Korea and Japan.
Washington should continue military realignment of its forces in
Northeast Asia and continue to work toward broader strategic
alliances with South Korea and Japan as well as ensuring close
coordination of the policies of all parties in the Six-Party
Expanding Policy Beyond the Six-Party
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.
- An extensive yet conditional approach would be to offer
Pyongyang a path to greater economic, developmental, and diplomatic
benefits while still insisting on conditionality, reciprocity, and
transparency. New initiatives should not be allowed to deflect
attention from Pyongyang's denuclearization requirements.
Negotiating venues should be pursued
bilaterally or multilaterally depending on their impact on a
country's national interests.
- Inter-Korean negotiations should be handled bilaterally by
Seoul and Pyongyang and be based on the 1991 Basic Agreement.
- The U.S., South Korea, and Japan should initiate
multilateral negotiations to eliminate North Korea's missile
threats to its neighbors. Such discussions should constrain,
and ideally eliminate, missile development, deployment, and
proliferation rather than being merely a quid pro quo
agreement of cash payments in exchange for Pyongyang not exporting
- The U.S., China, North Korea, and South Korea could begin
discussions on a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War
once North Korea's nuclear and missile threats to its neighbors are
eliminated. An inviolable precondition for such negotiations would
be the inclusion of conventional force reductions and
confidence-building measures, such as prior notification of major
military deployments, movements, and exercises.
Not all forms of engagement should be
linked to the Six-Party Talks.
- Humanitarian and development assistance should be divorced
from the nuclear negotiations. Levels of humanitarian aid
should be determined following extensive in-country assessments of
North Korean needs. Provision of humanitarian aid and development
assistance should be subject to rigorous monitoring standards.
- International development assistance should be subject to
the standard rules of international financial institutions.
Initial contributions should be project-based while any extensive,
long-term assistance should be tied to North Korean economic
- Law enforcement, implementation of U.N. resolutions, and
efforts to combat proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and
missiles are not negotiable. It was a grave mistake on the part
of the Bush Administration to allow Pyongyang to dictate an
abrogation of enforcing U.S. and international laws in exchange for
North Korea's return 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:
- Challenge North Korea to improve its abysmal human rights
record through exposure at international fora, including at the
- Call on Beijing to abandon repatriation of North Korean
defectors and allow visits by the U.N. rapporteur on North Korean
human rights to investigate refugee conditions in northeast
- Engage with China, Mongolia, and Southeast Asian nations
to determine ways to facilitate travel by North Korean
- Support Japanese and South Korean efforts to secure full
accounting and return of all abductees and prisoners of war
currently languishing in North Korea; and
- Condition establishment of diplomatic relations with North
Korea on the introduction of a Helsinki Accord-type process to
ensure human rights improvements.
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
- Facilitate formal student and cultural exchange
- Expand broadcasting services, such as by Radio Free Asia,
and distribution of leaflets, DVDs, computer flash drives,
documentaries, and movies into North Korea through both overt and
covert means. It is critical to aggressively pursue
distribution methods, such as airborne leaflets, to introduce
information into North Korea about the true nature of its regime in
addition to "feel good" initiatives like the New York
Philharmonic's visit to Pyongyang last year.
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
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.
is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast
Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage