Strategic Dialogue on North Korea

The initial essays in this strategic dialogue can be found here and here.

Brent Choi and Joowon Jung

John Feffer is a North Korea specialist who is well known for his pro-engagement policy toward North Korea. In his article North Korea and Malign Neglect, it’s not surprising that Feffer argues for an engagement approach as a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue. Such a point of view, however, results in unrealistic and unbalanced claims in several respects.

First of all, Feffer fails to recognize the fact that it is North Korea that should be held accountable for the current standoff between the United States and the North. His assertion that the Obama administration has been using a “malign neglect” policy in dealing with the North over the past 9 months is not true. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in February that the Obama administration is willing to establish diplomatic relations with the North, replace the armistice treaty with a peace treaty, and provide it with economic aid. Stephen Bosworth, a special envoy for North Korea, even stated that the Unites States could make a visit to the North for a bilateral negotiation. Despite such continued U.S. efforts, however, North Korea launched a long-range rocket in April and rejected Bosworth’s visit.

Secondly, without reflecting on the current political situation in North Korea, Feffer maintains that the United States must take an engagement approach in dealing with the North. However, considering that the North threatening to go ahead with its second nuclear test, he should have been able to realize that the center of the power in the North Korean regime is moving in favor of the harder-liners. It also appears that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il has started the selecting process for his successor, who is likely to be one of his sons. Therefore, Pyongyang’s recent hard-line stance toward the United States is based on its effort to hide these political changes.

Finally, when suggesting “an audacious and hopeful plan of action for North Korea” in the article, Feffer must lay out in detail the sorts of things that need to done by the Obama administration. For instance, he should discuss in a clear and specific manner what kind of economic and political aid, and how much, is needed to bring the North back to the negotiation table.

John Feffer

North Korea is the longest running U.S. policy failure. We’ve tried just about everything: war, containment, threats, isolation, an agreed framework, Six Party Talks, and bilateral discussions. The State Department has accumulated over 60 years of frustrations. The Pentagon is largely out of the equation given the devastating consequences of a military attack and subsequent war on the Korean peninsula. Now, the Obama administration comes into the White House under the general banner of “change.” But with its default policy of malign neglect, it has only offered more of the same.

Brent Choi and Joowon Jung, who are both very seasoned observers of North Korea, aren’t optimistic about a breakthrough any time soon. They argue that North Korea has decided once and for all to be a nuclear power. Pyongyang isn’t interested any more in the Six Party Talks. It wants bilateral negotiations with the United States on an equal basis — between two nuclear powers. The United States, they argue, should respond with a bigger stick (the threat of redeployment of nuclear weapons in South Korea) and a bigger carrot (high-level bilateral talks). This, Choi and Jung argue, is a new approach. But it isn’t.

The challenges of engaging North Korea have led many to walk away from the negotiating table in favor of a policy of brinkmanship. North Korea uses aggressive rhetoric, has flouted international norms by pursuing a nuclear program, and has ignored even the pressure of its putative allies in testing long-range rockets. At a certain level, North Korea is the most geopolitical of countries: it conducts its international relations almost exclusively on the basis of calculations of power and advantage. It wants a deal from the United States because it judges, correctly, that the United States is the most powerful country in the world and thus holds the key to North Korea’s future.

Despite Pyongyang’s focus on power and Washington’s role in resolving its myriad problems, we haven’t had much luck using brinksmanship to force North Korea to change its pattern of behavior. We practically bombed the country out of existence during the Korean War and failed to dislodge its leadership. The numerous threats against the country during the Cold War likewise proved unsuccessful. The Clinton administration attempted to push North Korea to the brink in 1994 during the first nuclear crisis and Pyongyang didn’t blink. During its first term, George W. Bush’s administration did its best to destabilize the country, and again North Korea simply pushed back.

The threat of placing nuclear weapons back in South Korea will have as much chance of success as these earlier attempts at brinksmanship. North Korea thrives on such threats. The leadership uses them to prove to the population that the country is surrounded and emergency measures are required in response. I, too, am worried that South Korea and Japan will decide to pursue nuclear programs of their own as a way to counter North Korea’s capabilities. But bringing U.S. nuclear weapons back to the region in this way is no solution, for it doesn’t address the underlying security threats.

Even with a nuclear program, North Korea is in the same corner it’s been in for years. The economy is in lousy shape. Relations with Russia and China are strained. Kim Jong Il isn’t exactly a much-beloved leader. He’s getting on in years, and there’s no clearly popular successor in the wings.

North Korea will only change internally when its external relations change dramatically, and that will require a new U.S. approach. We’ve tried brinksmanship and containment for over 60 years and the only change has been North Korea going nuclear. By following the example of détente with Vietnam and China, we can minimize the risk that North Korea poses to the international community and also encourage positive changes within the country. Only a fundamentally altered relationship with North Korea — economic engagement, a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War, diplomatic normalization — will change the dynamic by removing the threat that sustains the Kim Jong-Il regime and keeps the North Korean garrison mentality intact.

Brent Choi and Joowoon Jung are North Korea specialists based in Washington D.C. and contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus. John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.