Understanding and Confronting North Korea

Why does North Korea continue to provoke, often with lethal force, and always with severe consequences for stability and peace of mind in Northeast Asia? At one level, no one knows. The Hermit Kingdom is famously opaque, and with a leadership transition from Kim Jong-Il to his son Kim Jong-Un likely in the works as well, the current mystery is even deeper than usual.

At another level, the answer is rather obvious. North Korea carries out such shenanigans because it gets away with them. And it does so because it has few other ways to demand the world’s attention. Brinkmanship brings it global prominence. It often also brings it economic aid as the international community prefers to offer a few carrots rather than force a confrontation with an unpredictable state owning around 10 nuclear weapons and deploying thousands of artillery tubes within range of South Korean territory.

In just the last two years, North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon, sunk a South Korean ship and killed 46 sailors, and now killed 2 more South Korean servicemen in another act of unprovoked murder. Worst of all, it now also appears to be reviving ambitions to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Yet the North’s international standing has barely declined, with China protecting North Korea’s main equities and states like South Korea and the United States making it clear that they are still basically willing to return to six-party talks at any point. For Pyongyang, the message would seem obvious—misbehavior has no real consequences, and perhaps it will finally attract the world’s attention if it goes far enough. The fact that the United States, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan—the other participants in those six-party talks—have no common overall strategy for dealing with North Korea provides Pyongyang the opening it needs to divide and conquer the international community, assuming that someone will always come to its rescue if and when the going gets tough.

Rather than let North Korea call the shots, we need to seize the initiative with a strategy that the other five parties can agree to. Rather than vague talk about the possibility of an improved relationship, a roadmap for a better relationship is needed, with some degree of specificity. This should include the prospects of economic cooperation and a peace treaty if North Korea will do its part, denuclearizing and ceasing the provocations and beginning economic reforms along the Vietnam model. Someday not far off, human rights reforms would be needed as well.

To be sure, articulation of such a plan won’t make it happen. But just as a roadmap helps keep the international community unified about how to approach the Middle East peace process, a vision for a future relationship can do so here. That would guarantee success no more than a Mideast roadmap produces peace on the other side of the world. Yet it would help us present a united front when dealing with the North Korean regime.

It would take time to work out a roadmap for reintegrating a gradually reforming North Korea into the Northeast Asian community. But some initial elements might include the following:

  • Gradual denuclearization, of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium production facilities as well as the existing North Korean arsenal, in return for energy assistance, as with the 1994 Agreed Framework
  • Gradual market reforms in return for aid, with the former modeled on how Vietnam and China changed their economies over the past 3 decades, and with China taking the operational lead in helping North Korea in this effort on the ground (but with all parties providing generous aid, and World Bank loans no longer blocked)
  • An end to development of missile launches and medium-long range missile production in return for Japanese aid (further clarification on the abductee issue might be needed too)
  • An end to North Korean military provocations and some conventional force reductions as part of a formal peace treaty and the restoration of full diplomatic ties by countries like the United States. Third-party adjudication of disputed maritime borders might be part of this.
  • Improvement of conditions at North Korean prisons overseen by the International Red Cross, with a human rights dialogue modeled on the Helsinki process.

Negotiating an actual deal with these elements will be very hard and perhaps never fully attainable. But laying out with clarity where we would collectively like to go will regain some of the initiative from Pyongyang for the broader international community, making its attention-seeking behavior less likely to cause us confusion and divisions among the other five parties, and less likely to help North Korea reap rewards. Over time that may reduce the frequency of such behavior—especially because, in addition to the above positive incentives, greater cohesion among the five outside powers should increase the likelihood that China too will join in tougher trade and aid sanctions in the aftermath of future DPRK aggressions and provocations. This approach is not all about kindness or carrots.

Right now Pyongyang is in the driver’s seat, and American policy contributes to that situation with an excessively passive and punitive approach. We need to be firm with North Korea, but we also need to show where the relationship might go if its behavior improves. Incredibly, we have never done so.