For America and her allies, dealing with the North Korean regime (to borrow a phrase from the current administration’s own Samantha Power) is a “problem from hell.”
The Pyongyang government is fundamentally “revisionist” in its worldview: that is to say, totally opposed to the existing international security system, one that includes an independent and democratic South Korean state allied with an American nuclear superpower.
Given its worldview, the North Korean state does not—indeed cannot—believe in “win-win” deals with Seoul, Tokyo, or Washington. By Pyongyang’s logic, transactions that willingly leave quarter for mortal enemies would be foolhardy, if not treasonous.
"But will it ever be possible for a U.S. administration to think coherently about actually making North Korea a smaller problem than it inherited?"
And given its strategic handicaps—among them a now-permanently dysfunctional economy and a Kim-worshiping state peculiarly incapable of achieving international objectives through ordinary diplomacy—Pyongyang’s goals lead to a relentless pursuit of nuclear weaponry and the means to deliver them around the globe.
Thus, despite the North Korean economy’s painful decay over the past 20 years and the concomitant deterioration of the DPRK’s conventional military capabilities, North Korea’s capacity for exporting international menace has continued to increase. Over those same two decades, American policy—under both Democrats and Republicans—has manifestly failed to control, much less reduce, the North Korean threat.
Let us give credit where it is due: Over the past three years, the Obama administration’s approach to North Korea policy has been patently superior to the misguided and ultimately irresponsible North Korea policy that the Bush administration blundered into during the twilight years of the Dubya era.
For reasons that future historians may perhaps eventually divine, shortly after the 2006 elections the Bush administration began what might be described as a sort of “no bad news about North Korea” campaign. Thereafter, the Bush team maintained that a nuclear deal with Pyongyang was really possible—ignoring or suppressing inconvenient evidence to the contrary. Over the course of that misbegotten adventure, Washington bent laws and doled out special financial favors to Pyongyang’s gangsters and money launderers in the hope of getting them back to the negotiating table, granted special aid arrangements to the Dear Leader and the other authors of famine in their own land, and even withheld from the public intelligence documenting North Korea’s international nuclear proliferation for fear that such revelations might interfere with nuclear negotiations.
President Obama’s North Korea team, by contrast, has by and large steered clear of the punji sticks that seemed so invariably to beckon Washington’s previous, stumble-footed North Korea policy varsity. The current approach, known as “strategic patience,” has in effect been a policy of avoiding “unforced errors” in our dealings with Pyongyang.
Compared to the woebegone Bush/Cheney/Rice/Hill North Korea policy of 2006-2009, playing not to lose with the DPRK counts as an incontestable improvement.
But will it ever be possible for a U.S. administration to think coherently about actually making North Korea a smaller problem than it inherited?
Such an approach would surely demand a new view of many things—missile defense, civil defense in South Korea, human rights policy toward North Korea, and much more. More important: such an approach would require a genuine strategy—one involving our allies and perhaps envisioning the global architecture that would be needed to make for a successful reunification of a post-DPRK Korea under a free and open Korean peninsula in alliance with the USA and the West.
Here is the crucial question: is any presidential aspirant in the upcoming 2012 campaign up to this task?
Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt scholar in political economy at AEI