A New North Korea Strategy

The Obama administration has just completed some dogged and impressive diplomacy in tightening U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea in response to the latter’s recent missile and nuclear tests. The limitations on financing North Korean imports and exports will be noticed quickly in Pyongyang; the provisions on voluntary inspections of North Korean ships are less likely to cause immediate impact but do send a message of what could follow further provocations.

Unfortunately, these tactical responses to North Korea’s unacceptable behavior — however necessary and judicious — do not amount to a strategy for denuclearizing North Korea. To be sure, easy and effective strategies are not readily available. In fact, many observers have given up on the plausibility of ever persuading Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear arsenal.

If there is hope of a more effective strategy, it must center on China, North Korea’s only ally by treaty. Beijing has also become Pyongyang’s major economic partner, accounting for three-quarters of trade with the impoverished country and providing its main supplies of petroleum. China enjoys unrivaled leverage in pressuring North Korea to desist from its recent provocations.

But how to rein in Pyongyang? It’s a question that has bedeviled Presidents Clinton, Bush and now Obama. We have a fundamental problem. Like us, China is worried about a nuclear North Korea, concerned about the leadership succession process there and unhappy with the provocative actions of its troublesome ally. But it probably worries even more about the potential for North Korean collapse. It much prefers a buffer between its borders and American allies as well as U.S. military forces. And it abhors the idea of regional instability.

North Korea’s choice

The only real hope of getting North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons is to apply such significant economic pressure that the regime is forced to make a choice between economic collapse and the verifiable dismantling of its nuclear weapons and facilities. Such pressure would need to be accompanied by an offer of full political and economic normalization if Pyongyang agreed to abandon its nuclear program. The only country capable of applying such pressure is China.

After consultations with Japan and South Korea, we should approach China to tell its leaders that our objective is not to bring down the North Korean regime but to change its policy. If the application of tough sanctions by Beijing led to a regime collapse, we’d undertake to give China guarantees that it would not be expected to accept large numbers of North Korean refugees. Rather, the United States would work with the international community to find other places for them. This would require some effort; the U.S. has been notoriously poor of late on such issues, including doing its share to resettle Iraqi refugees. At other moments in our history, we have been more generous.

Many of our allies could be asked tocommit to help, too. That would include, of course, South Korea, which could be asked to take care of substantial numbers of its ethnic brethren from the North at least temporarily until the situation stabilized and refugees could go back to their home villages in a presumably then-reunified Korean Peninsula.

We could further offer to organize an international effort to share the financial costs of sheltering those refugees that did wind up in China and other countries.

The U.S. commitment

As for the future of U.S. troops, we should give the Chinese a commitment that even in the context of a regime collapse in the North, and the establishment of a unified Korea, U.S. troops would not move north of the 38th parallel except for the temporary purpose of stabilizing the peninsula and helping secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons. We might also say that in such a context, we would be prepared to remove most U.S. troops from the peninsula because their presence there, once stability had been achieved, would no longer be as necessary (except to a lesser degree for broader regional purposes).

These would be incentives for China, designed to ease its worries about North Korean nuclear weapons. We should also, however, send a message that the world would be watching Beijing’s handling of this problem for indications of how it intends to act as a great power of the 21st century.

Nuclear proliferation is widely recognized among the world’s responsible powers as a matter requiring extremely urgent and serious attention. Were China to disagree, out of parochial interest in keeping a border region quiet, it would confirm the suspicions of some that Beijing takes little responsibility for shoring up the international economic and political order, instead profiting from that order for its own purposes as long as it can. This is not a message that Beijing wants to send, and we should be clear on the point.

There is no guarantee, of course, that such an approach would succeed in persuading China to do what only it can do regarding North Korea. But if these representations, most of them advantageous to Beijing, were sufficient to get China to agree to put real pressure on Pyongyang, it would be a small price to pay for securing Chinese support for what could be the only real hope of solving the nuclear problem in North Korea.