A route to reining in North Korea
The South Korean president's Washington visit is a good time to define a firm policy regarding Pyongyang.


South Korean President Park Geun-hye waves as she leaves a military airport in Seongnam, south of Seoul May 5, 2013. Park will visit the United States from May 5 to 10 for her first summit with US President Barack Obama.

Article Highlights

  • North Korea has no interest in granting America or its allies a lasting regional peace.

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  • When it comes to Pyongyang, conferencing with blackmailers gains nothing.

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  • The best response to North Korea's shakedown diplomacy is a threat-reduction strategy that reduces the regime's capabilities for extortion.

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When President Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye meet in Washington on Tuesday to consider how to deal with the latest North Korean crisis, some in policy circles will urge the leaders to undertake another round of diplomatic overtures.

In recent months, Pyongyang's adventure in brinkmanship has included launching a long-range ballistic rocket, conducting an underground nuclear test, and repeatedly threatening attacks against the U.S. and South Korea, including nuclear ones. In response to all this menace, Secretary of State John Kerry declared last month in Japan: "Our choice is to negotiate" with the Kim Jong Eun regime "and find a way to peace." Others close to Mr. Obama and Ms. Park likewise regard diplomatic "engagement" as the only viable option for reducing the North Korean threat.

There is one huge problem with this "engagement" game plan: North Korea has no interest in granting America or its allies a lasting regional peace. Understanding this unwelcome but critical fact is the first step toward a strategy that could make the North Korean problem smaller, not larger, over time.

International military extortion is an entirely logical policy for Pyongyang, indeed a practical necessity for state survival. Monumentally distorted by government planners, the North Korean economy today cannot operate without a steady flow of subsidies from abroad. Peaceful commercial trade could help revive the economy, but the North Koreans have long rejected that route—in 1998 the government news agency declared that "reform" and "opening" are "honey-coated poison" for "our own style of socialism." Consequently, for North Korean leadership, the solution to securing foreign resource transfers lies in the unending threat of international violence.

For similar reasons, the North Korean regime can never abide by any security deal it actually signs. Its leaders are firm believers in situational ethics: Whenever an international security treaty, agreement or promise looks to constrain the pursuit of their immediate interests, North Korean leaders will reject it as unacceptable—as they have since the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 1948.

Pyongyang's officials regard such promise-breaking not just as moral but as positively patriotic. In the regime's view, the DPRK is the single true authority fulfilling the historical destiny of the Korean race; interference by any DPRK official with that mission would by definition be treason.

These quintessential features of the regime help explain why all of the many Western diplomatic initiatives over the past two decades have failed: the Agreed Framework of 1994, the Perry Process of 1999, South Korea's "Sunshine Policy" of 1998 to 2008, the intermittent six-party talks since 2003 and others less well remembered. It also explains why future diplomatic overtures will fail. There can be no "getting to yes" with a regime that regards its negotiating partners as fundamentally illegitimate, no matter what diplomatic eminences may otherwise counsel.

Of course, this reality should not mean cutting off official communication with the regime. Talking with Pyongyang can serve important if limited purposes—such as reducing the scope for needless misunderstanding, or the risk of miscalculation. But conferencing with blackmailers gains nothing.

The best response to North Korea's shakedown diplomacy is a threat-reduction strategy: a coherent long-term plan to reduce the regime's capabilities for extortion and the dividends it can expect to reap from predation. The heart of such an approach must be deeds not words—sustained actions, and credible responses, in both military and nonmilitary arenas.

Such a threat-reduction strategy requires all of the deterrence policies currently in force—and more. Militarily, a threat-reduction strategy means steadily implementing countermeasures to deny Pyongyang's ability to inflict damage on other countries. These countermeasures include broadly enhanced missile defense, big improvements in the "counter-battery systems" for suppressing the thousands of artillery tubes trained on South Korea from just across the Demilitarized Zone dividing the countries, and a civil-defense system worthy of the name for South Korea's capital city, Seoul.

The strategy also includes zero tolerance for international "crises" that the North Korean regime routinely manufactures. Pyongyang's inclination for adventurism will be smaller, not greater, if the leadership has to fear it may lose a little face the next time the regime stokes a foreign confrontation.

For decades, North Korea has been taught that it faces virtually no penalties for its choreographed acts of provocation. That lesson must be untaught by the alliance of the U.S., South Korea and Japan, albeit carefully. Pyongyang must come to expect that—unlike with these past events—no ax-slaying of allied soldiers, no sinking of allied naval vessels, no rocket launches over allied territories, no murder of allied civilians will go unanswered, including by military means.

Depending on the circumstances—and as part of a calibrated strategy—a North Korean rocket fired over Japan might be shot out of the sky; the sinking of a South Korean vessel might be answered by taking out North Korean naval assets.

Outside of military measures, the U.S. and its allies should adopt financial and other policies that cut off the regime's illicit sources of revenue: Pyongyang's criminal operations (running drugs, counterfeiting the currencies of other nations) should be treated as such.

A robust international human-rights campaign in support of the world's most hideously abused subject population would restrict the regime's international freedom of maneuver, just as the anti-apartheid campaign did against South Africa in the 1980s. A serious public-communications effort—propaganda, if you like—aimed at encouraging any glimmers of decline in the cohesion of Pyongyang's elite could also constrain the leadership.

The case for reducing the threat to peace posed by North Korea stands on its own—but there is also a bigger strategic picture: the future of all the Korean people. While endeavoring to make the world safe from a gangster nation, the U.S. and its allies must give serious thought to what Korea, and the region, should look like after the regime's demise.

Relations between the U.S. and South Korea are very good; President Park Geun-hye's address to Congress on Wednesday, the day after her talks with Mr. Obama, will demonstrate this. And President Obama's record on North Korea to date has been blessedly free of the sorts of unforced errors committed by some of his predecessors. There could scarcely be a more opportune moment, then, to embark on a realistic joint effort not simply to manage the North Korean problem, but to make the problem progressively less dangerous.


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