north-korea-missile-test-dmzFor a country that is often portrayed in Western media as unpredictable, the North Korean regime has actually proven to operate on a quite limited, if rather provocative, cycle. On the heels of December’s successful missile test, the recalcitrant nation is now preparing for a third test of its nuclear weapons program. If this script seems familiar, that’s because each of the North’s previous nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, were directly preceded by ballistic missile launches. With the next test expected to be imminent, the main difference this time is that the international community will not have had to wait as long for the other shoe to drop.

For their part, the United States and its allies have shown themselves to be following an equally unimaginative playbook, predictably responding to the latest missile test with a push for increased sanctions in the United Nations Security Council. The “successful” result of this diplomatic initiative was announced in late January, with American UN ambassador Susan Rice claiming that “the new sanctions and tightening of existing measures concretely help to reduce the growth of North Korea’s weapons programs.”

With the United States threatening even further sanctions in the event of a nuclear test, one has to wonder how effective these exercises really are. Given that similar pronouncements were made after previous sanctions were imposed on North Korea, it is easy to be skeptical as to whether the new measures, which expanded restrictions on North Korean companies and added four more of its leaders to a travel blacklist, will have much of an impact. As long as China continues to prop up its erstwhile dependent, all this latest round of politicking may have done is ensure that the test-sanction-test cycle remains unchanged.

As unsurprising as this latest turn of events is, it is also disappointing. The recent leadership changes in both Korean capitals offered some hope that inter-Korean relations might be set on a more positive path after the five years of tension and hostility that marked the Lee Myung-bak presidency in the South. Recognizing Lee’s hardline policy as a failure, incoming South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye has advocated for renewed engagement with Pyongyang, going so far as to call for the implementation of previous Korean summit agreements. In contrast, one of President Lee’s first actions upon taking office in early 2008 was to cancel the previous year’s summit accords made between the late Kim Jong-il and former South Korean leader Roh Moo-hyun, sending relations into a tailspin from which they have yet to recover. Hopes were further stoked when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un marked the start of 2013 by calling for an end to confrontation and reconciliation between the two sides.

Unfortunately, any cause for optimism was quickly snuffed out after North Korea responded angrily to the latest round of sanctions, lashing out at the UN, threatening further nuclear and missile tests directly targeting the United States, and ruling out any talk of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. If the same story continues to unfold, we are going to be in for another four years of the “strategic patience” approach that marked the first Obama term, a policy which essentially translates to “sit back and watch while North Korea improves on its existing missile and nuclear weapons programs.”

Necessity of a new approach

At this point, the Obama administration needs to realize that it is holding a weak hand and fundamentally change its strategy for the Korean Peninsula.

As the supplier of roughly 90 percent of North Korea’s fuel and energy imports, China is the sole player with any leverage at all over the regime’s behavior. However, because Beijing’s biggest fear is the collapse of the Kim regime and the ensuing fallout —ranging from a massive influx of refugees to the possibility of a unified Korea with an American military presence on its northeast border—the Chinese government has been unwilling to take the kind of measures that would lead North Korea to consider altering its course of action. Despite showing support for a tougher line against the North at the UN, the situation will likely persist as long as the political calculus for Chinese leaders remains the same.

Meanwhile, the United States’ main source of leverage against the North is the military option, which both sides are fully aware is off the table except as a defense mechanism in the case of an attack on the South. Because of this, the 28,500 American troops stationed in Korea are in the unique position of causing friction by their mere presence, even as the probability of them being deployed is quite low. The U.S.-South Korea Status of Forces agreement, whereby the United States commands both the American and ROK military forces, was helpful in preserving the status quo on the Korean Peninsula in the decades following the Korean War, but more recently has become an impediment to any progress for peace. Apart from discouraging more proactive involvement on the part of the Chinese government, it also allows the North to blame the United States for all of the problems of the peninsula and absolves South Korean leaders from having to make tough choices about their security situation. This creates a kind of inertia where all sides are discouraged from taking any real action that could alter the security dynamic of the region.

Given these factors, it is time for the Obama administration to start withdrawing the American military from Korean soil. Not only would such a move save billions of dollars annually ($15 billion, according to a 2006 article by the Cato Institute’s Doug Bandow) at a time when the cost of maintaining America’s global garrison is coming under increasing scrutiny, but it would shift the impetus for negotiating solutions to the long-running dispute squarely onto the shoulders of the key players in the region. It would allow the United States to free itself from the burden of being South Korea’s protector and become a more even-handed partner for peace.

Raising the status of South Korea

Lim Dong-won, who served as Unification Minister under Kim Dae-jung, succinctly described the fundamental problem in inter-Korean relations. “South Korea,” he said, “must recover its independent identity as the main player in negotiations with North Korea.”

This is particularly important with regards to the nuclear issue. The Basic Agreement signed between the two sides in 1992 calls for a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, one of the reasons that Seoul has been unsuccessful in pressing the matter is because of the current security dynamic, as well as its subservient military agreement with the United States. As North Korea repeatedly makes clear, its nuclear missile programs are primarily aimed at the United States, not South Korea. What incentive, then, does the North have to take seriously South Korean demands for denuclearization when Washington is its stationing troops and controlling all military forces south of the DMZ?

Withdrawing its forces and handing over operational control of the ROK military to South Korea—currently scheduled to take place in 2015—must be part of any American strategy. The Obama administration cannot allow this to be deferred again, as was the case in 2010, when the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan led to President Lee requesting that the transfer date be pushed back until 2015.

While assuming control of its military would force the South to confront difficult choices regarding its security, it would also make any strategy of economic engagement far more effective. As pointed out by Bruce Cumings, one of the major factors undermining the Sunshine Policy in the early 2000s was the abrupt policy pivot by the incoming Bush administration, which scrapped the Perry Process of engagement with North Korea and instead placed strict conditions on further negotiations. After the policy shift in Washington, the North remained willing to accept South Korean aid, but became far less amenable to making concessions over its weapons programs. By allowing South Korea to assume control over its security functions, such coordination problems would be eliminated.

North Korea: A willing partner?

Despite the North’s recent military bluster, there are signs that Kim Jong-un has been cautiously embarking on economic reforms during his first year in power. These include a new agricultural policy allowing farmers to keep 30 percent of their crop rather than having to turn it completely over to the government, and a plan to legalize private investment through the auspices of state-owned enterprises. Noted North Korean expert Andrei Lankov also suggested that the full-scale overhaul of top leaders in the military would allow the regime to shift its focus away from its long standing songun (military-first) policy. While the significance of these moves is yet unclear, taken together they would seem to merit some optimism that the nature of the regime may be changing ever so slightly.

Attempting to interpret North Korea’s intentions is never straightforward, however. Indeed, many analysts have taken the missile tests and bellicose statements to mean that the regime is the same as it ever was, and that renewed attempts at engagement are likely to fail as long as this remains the case. However, given Kim’s youth and inexperience, it is possible that the new leader feels that such measures are necessary in order to bolster his credibility and gain enough leeway with conservative forces in the North to begin implementing economic reforms. There was also speculation that the timely reporting of Park’s victory in North Korean media, in contrast to previous elections when such announcements were either delayed or simply non-existent, mean that Pyongyang is seriously hoping to improve ties with the South after five years of strained relations with the Lee administration.

As close as “lips and teeth”?

Though it may seem counterintuitive, a further factor working in favor of engagement is the North’s increasing dependency on China. Over the past five years, trade between the two countries has tripled, with China now accounting for roughly 70 percent of the North Korea’s $8 billion in annual trade. This recent surge in economic interaction has taking on many forms, including increased resource extraction by Chinese firms operating in the North, development of a special economic zone at the port city of Rason, and a guest-worker program begun earlier this year allowing thousands of North Koreans legal status to work in the border regions of northeastern China.

Much of this increased economic activity with China has occurred at the same time as inter-Korean trade dropped significantly during the hardline Lee administration. A trend that was already on the decline further accelerated in 2010 with the May 24 sanctions imposed unilaterally by the South in response to the Cheonan sinking. These sanctions alone were estimated to have put economic losses to North Korea at roughly $2 billion, according to a report from the Hyundai Research Institute. During that time, China has stepped in to fill the void.

On the surface, then, it would appear that the two long-time allies have become closer than ever. However, the statistics mask a much more complicated picture. The leaders in Pyongyang have long been wary of dependence on China, with veteran North Korea analyst Selig Harrison observing that, “for North Korea, the need to make ever more political and economic concessions to China is abhorrent.” As FPIF’s John Feffer notes, the Korean word summing up this state of submission is sadaejuui, which loosely translates to “toadyism,” and has its roots in the historical relationship between the Joseon Dynasty and the Chinese empire. For a regime which prides itself on a doctrine of juche self-reliance, the near-total dependency on its powerful neighbor has to be incredibly distressing. Some of this frustration was on display in October, when the government heavily criticized a Chinese company, Xiyang, over a failed mining deal, and Kim Jong-un voiced a rare complaint that his country’s mineral resources were being sold off too cheaply. Indeed, awareness of this over-dependency may have been one of the motivators behind new leader’s somewhat surprising call for inter-Korean reconciliation during his 2013 New Year’s Day address.

Testing the waters in the West Sea

If North Korea is truly serious about a change in its antagonistic relationship with the South, there are few better places to test this proposition than in the disputed West Sea area. Since 1999, this volatile area has witnessed no less than five deadly incidents, including two in 2010 that were among the worst military engagements between the two sides since the end of the Korean War: the Cheonan sinking and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. The source of this dispute is the so-called Northern Limit Line (NLL), which has emerged as the thorniest issue between North and South in recent years. While historians can argue about the origins and validity of the line (those wishing for a more detailed discussion would do well to read Terence Roehrig’s excellent background paper), in the practical sense, this is one area that will test the resolve of both North and South to make the kinds of concessions needed for peace.

The inter-Korean summit of 2007 attempted to address this problem with the creation of a joint fishing and maritime peace area in the West Sea, a multi-billion dollar port expansion in the northern city of Haeju, and joint development of the Han River estuary. Unfortunately, this summit took place with just a few months left in President Roh’s term, and these projects were never implemented under the Lee administration. As noted previously, this decision poisoned inter-Korean relations almost from the day that Lee came into office.

With President-elect Park’s stance backing implementation of previous inter-Korean agreements, the pieces of a deal are still there if she decides to pick them up. Given the North’s chronic need for injections of foreign capital, she would likely encounter a receptive audience, especially if she sweetened the pot by offering additional economic incentives, such as increased humanitarian aid or the lifting of the May 24 sanctions. Despite her campaign rhetoric vowing not to give ground on the NLL issue, she might find herself more willing to make concessions if shifting security conditions made the South Korean president solely responsible for ROK military policy. In return, the North would have to apologize for the Yeonpyeong Island attack and renounce further aggression in the area. From there, the two sides could work toward creating the kind of cooperatively administered area envisioned in the previous summit accord. Another idea would be to create a mechanism for joint patrols in the West Sea in order to prevent the illegal intrusion of Chinese fishermen into the area, which have been on the rise in recent years.

Forging a comprehensive solution to the West Sea dispute would be a major accomplishment, turning a flashpoint of conflict into the foundation for a new era of peaceful coexistence. The sight of naval vessels from North and South patrolling side by side as Korean fishermen hauled their catch out of calm, tranquil waters would be a tremendous boost for mutual trust. It would also provide the momentum needed to address larger concerns, such as the nuclear issue and an eventual peace treaty to replace the armistice ending the Korean War. By demonstrating its intention to peacefully resolve what has been such a difficult issue, the North would send an important signal that it is ready for serious negotiations regarding other major sources of dispute.

Making diplomatic overtures

Disengaging militarily from the Korean Peninsula does not mean that the United States should sit passively on the sidelines. Especially if progress on the West Sea issue and enhanced economic cooperation were made between North and South, it would be important for the Obama administration to follow up with its own diplomatic efforts. Rather than premise this discussion on the demand for complete denuclearization, however, it would be better to adhere to what Selig Harrison has referred to as the “three nos”: no new weapons, no further tests, and no sales of weapons or military technologies to other nations.

The United States should approach these negotiations with an eye toward improving both the political climate between the two countries and the North’s economic situation. The former would lessen the need for further nuclear tests and missile development, while an improving North Korean economy would mean that the regime would have less incentive to sell its weapons and technology to other countries or to terrorist groups, especially if doing so jeopardized the economic gains that would result from upholding their agreements. The long-term objective is the creation an environment where the losses to North Korea if it chooses to revert back to weapons development outweigh the gains they get from playing by the rules. This environment has yet to be established, which is a primary reason that talks with Pyongyang continually lead nowhere. To get there, both political and economic concerns have to be addressed.

On the political side, diplomatic normalization with the United States has long been a goal of the North Korean regime. As a first step, Washington could take a page out of France’s playbook and offer to establish a cultural office in Pyongyang as a precursor to eventual full diplomatic recognition. France is one of only two European Nations that does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK – the other being Estonia – but opened a cultural office in 2011 as a kind of intermediary measure to improve relations. Such a step would go beyond anything that the United States has offered before, signaling that it is in fact a serious about making progress in this area, while also allowing an out to hedge against North Korea failing to honor its side of the deal.

Transforming the role of the Six-Party talks

In order to improve the North’s economic situation there should be a two-track effort consisting of both bilateral North-South engagement and a resumption of the Six-Party Talks. While the goal of the Six-Party forum should remain denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it should also not let this long-run goal preclude progress from being made in the short term. One way to do this is by establishing funding mechanisms in order to show North Korea the benefits that can be gained through cooperation with the international community.

An interesting idea proposed by Suk Hee Kim and Bernhard Seliger would be the creation of a Bank of North Korean Development, funded by the Six-Party members and administered by a China, the United States, and a third party, possibly Switzerland. This idea has several merits, not least of which is institutionalizing a mechanism for economic assistance and dividing the burden of financing projects among all six member states. Institutionalizing funding is particularly important in order to avoid a repeat of the problems that plagued implementation of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which was the first attempt by the United States to address the problem posed by North Korea’s nuclear program. In the words of Kenneth Quinones, a State Department official who helped verify the removal of spent plutonium rods at Yongbyon in the 1990s, “North Korea did in fact comply with all their stipulations under the Agreed Framework,” while the American record of compliance was “quite spotty.”

The mistrust generated by Washington’s inability to live up to its end of the deal—largely a result of congressional foot-dragging in allocating funding to construct two light water reactors as a condition for the North ending its nuclear program—was undoubtedly one of the biggest motivators in North Korea’s decision to undertake a clandestine uranium enrichment program, the discovery of which would spell the end of the accord in 2002. By collectivizing the financing mechanism among countries which all have a stake in a peaceful Korean Peninsula, such a breakdown would be much easier to avoid in any future agreements.

The most important role for the Bank would be to fund projects within North Korea that would allow it to improve its economy without having to resort to its old habits of selling weapons, narcotics smuggling, or counterfeiting American currency. Given the dilapidated state of North Korean transport and energy infrastructure, there are no shortage of proposals that could serve as pilot projects for this endeavor. If successful, this could lead to the type of conditional exchange envisioned under earlier agreements, whereby the North would agree to comply with certain demands, such as inspection of nuclear facilities and ending its missile program, in return for project funding. Verification measures could then be coordinated by the Six Party members in conjunction with international organizations, such as the IAEA.

A pragmatic approach in an age of limits

With its much publicized foreign policy “pivot,” the Obama administration has rightly identified Northeast Asia as the new center of economic power in a rapidly changing world. The danger is that the president and his team will continue to cling to the 20th-century notion that American military might is the basis by which it can manage that change. As seen in the case of North Korea, this worldview can be quite problematic when practical considerations—in this case, the devastation that would result in the event of a new Korean War—force that card to remain in the deck.

To its credit, the Obama administration has recognized the need for cooperative action in dealing with the problems posed by North Korea. However, it hasn’t yet been able to reach the conclusion that this help would be much more forthcoming if the American military were removed from the equation on the Korean Peninsula. Doing so would give China an incentive to take a firm stance when North Korea refuses to honor its commitments, and provide South Korea with the opportunity to better influence a change in the North’s course of action.

The hope, of course, is that as they begin to see the benefits of cooperation with the international community, the North Korean government would become amenable to discussing giving up its nuclear weapons. As both the United States and South Korea have made repeatedly clear, denuclearization is a prerequisite to any peace treaty that can replace the now 60-year-old armistice that ended the Korean War. An improved security situation on the peninsula through the withdrawal of American military forces, a normalizing of its dysfunctional relationship with the United States, and coordinated economic assistance from its neighbors might finally convince the North to take this step.

Geoffrey Fattig is a graduate student at UC San Diego's School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. He currently lives in Seoul, Korea.