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On 23 November 2010, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) launched an unprovoked artillery attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island. Republic of Korea (ROK) forces returned fire but four South Koreans died in the attack--the first time civilians have been targeted and killed since the end of the Korean War. Earlier in the year, on 26 March, DPRK sank a ROK naval vessel, the Cheonan, resulting in 46 deaths. DPRK poses two distinct but interrelated challenges for US strategy: its nuclear weapons program and the threat of proliferation beyond the Korean Peninsula; and the pending transfer of power in Pyongyang and potential for instability as that process plays out. This essay proposes a “contain and engage” strategy.
DPRK has taken definitive steps toward becoming a full nuclear power and cannot be expected to reverse course anytime soon. DPRK sees nuclear weapons as the only deterrent to US military invasion. Additionally, Pyongyang’s objective in pursuing full nuclear capability is not to win militarily, but rather to initiate a coercive bargaining process that produces a better negotiation outcome. Because of this dangerous impasse-crisis-bargaining dynamic, traditional containment may not deter the limited use of force, and actually encourages the rational use of force. The salience of the succession issue means it is doubtful DPRK will change its path much with respect to acquiring a nuclear arsenal until the new regime leadership is safely established.
The threat from the Korean Peninsula stems from the fact that there is no effective restraint on DPRK at this point. At around the same time as the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong, DPRK disclosed the existence of a clandestine uranium enrichment complex. DPRK refuses to be a responsible member of the international community and live up to the commitments it made under the Six-Party Talks about its nuclear programs in 2005. China is reluctant to blame the Yeonpyeong raid on DPRK and continues to prop up Pyongyang with economic aid, fearing a collapse of the regime there would send millions of refugees into northeastern China and bring US troops to the Chinese border. Chinese fear of the destabilizing effect of Korean refugees is leverage for the US to exploit.
US, China, ROK, Japan, and Russia (the five key states--or 5K) should take coordinated steps to contain DPRK WMD materials and technologies from spreading to terrorist entities or other states. Multilateral action is key since all of the 5K have a lot to lose from an imploding DPRK. The US should discourage unilateral action on the part of ROK since the government in Seoul would incur very high costs of rebuilding a collapsed DPRK economy on its own. China does not want a larger crisis involving DPRK and officially opposes its development of nuclear weapons. China fears nuclearization by Japan and Taiwan. Recently revealed diplomatic cables suggest Chinese officials believe DPRK’s nuclear activities are a threat to global security.
The 5K should take coordinated steps to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and maintain sanctions to punish DPRK for advancing their WMD programs in violation of signed agreements. Coordinated action is important because DPRK is more immune to diplomatic pressure than other states due to its policy of self-reliance and state sacrifice, and even China--the closest thing Pyongyang has to a major ally--has little leverage in changing DPRK’s behavior significantly. Still, the US and other countries can still exercise leverage if they aggressively pursue DPRK’s international financial intermediaries as they have done at times in the past. Beijing does not want Pyongyang setting off a confrontation that embroils China against the US at a time when China’s next leader, the untested Xi Jinping, is preparing to take over.
The 5K should take coordinated steps to prevent the transfer of WMD materials or technologies to anti-western actors such as Al-Qaeda, Iran, or Syria. China’s failure to sufficiently condemn DPRK over its nuclear weapons has encouraged Pyongyang to believe it is free to act with impunity. French, Japanese, ROK and Israeli sources outline recent DPRK programs to provide arms and training to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Reports also describe a collaborative relationship between DPRK and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps at least up through 2009. DPRK is also suspected of supplying nuclear assistance to Syria.
The 5K should maintain sanctions targeting the military elite since they are expected to govern as a regency after Kim Jong-un takes power. A return to Cold War tactics signals a rise of the generals, who are attempting to cement their control over the younger Kim. Starting in 2009, when succession rumors began, the official voice of Pyongyang has been dominated by military agencies, such as the National Defense Commission and the Korean People’s Army, as opposed to the relatively moderate Foreign Ministry. The Yeonpyeong attack may have been the result of infighting. Strategically, the Pyongyang regime may believe it has no favorable negotiating position until after 2012, when the US, ROK, and Russia have their presidential elections and Hu Jintao steps down in China.
Hand in hand with targeted sanctions, the US should engage in aggressive bilateral diplomacy (with DPRK and China) and multilateral diplomacy to make clear to the DPRK leadership the costs of not recognizing and abiding by international norms, not opening markets, and refusing to support eventual Korean unification. Since Yeonpyeong, Seoul’s stance has been hardening, with the conservative president, Lee Myung-bak--who broke from the country’s longstanding “Sunshine Policy” toward DPRK--ordering island defenses to be fortified and more aggressive rules of engagement. On the other hand, ROK Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan called allied cooperation “imperative” and stressed the need to engage Moscow and Beijing. US strategy should exploit this opening to establish a unified approach by the 5K toward DPRK.
Through bilateral and multilateral diplomacy the US should persuade DPRK to modernize markets along a Vietnam model, to reduce its dependence on the IC and preclude a violent and precipitous collapse of the regime. Long-term accumulation of excessive investment in military industries, and contradictions in the centralized, closed and planned economy, have caused basic industrial facilities to collapse. Asia is a key region for the global economy and future economic development and the destabilizing leadership in Pyongyang can be enticed to join emerging markets, even if only incrementally, if managed by the coordinated diplomacy of the 5K.
Although DPRK intentions will remain shrouded, the US should adopt a strategy that aligns all elements of national power toward US interests with respect to non-proliferation and reunification, and that supports multilateral negotiations. China is key to a US strategy for DPRK, and Washington should be prepared to make concessions in order to avoid the appearance of an anti-China bloc between the US, Japan, and ROK. Through market reforms, economic assistance from the US, and a unified diplomatic front from the 5K, the DPRK leadership can eventually be persuaded to give up its nuclear arsenal permanently.
1. For more on the issues referred to in this short essay, see Larry A. Niksch, North Korea: Terrorism List Removal (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service Report, 6 January 2010); International Crisis Group (ICG), North Korea under Tightening Sanctions, 15 March 2010, Asia Briefing Nr. 101; James J. Przystup, “North Korea: Challenges, Interests, and Policy,” Strategic Forum, Nr. 250, National Defense University, Institute for National Strategic Studies (November 2009); Wade L. Huntley, “U.S. Policy Toward North Korea in Strategic Context: Tempting Goliath’s Fate,” Asian Survey 47, Issue 3 (June 2007): 455-480; Ted Galen Carpenter, Options for Dealing with North Korea, Cato Institute, Foreign Policy Briefing, Nr. 73 (6 January 2003); Ralph A. Cossa, Brad Glosserman, Michael A. McDevitt, Nirav Patel, James Przystup, and Brad Roberts, The United States and the Asia-Pacific Region: Security Strategy for the Obama Administration (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, February 2009); C. Kenneth Quinones, “The Obama Administration’s North Korea Policy,” paper for University of Sydney Conference on Economics and Politics of War and Peace, 26-27 June 2009; Ray Midkiff, U.S. Regional Strategy for North Korea (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, Strategy Research Project, 18 March 2005).
2. See Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, “Sanctioning North Korea: The Political Economy of Denuclearization and Proliferation,” University of California, San Diego, Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IRPS), Peterson Institute for International Economics Working Paper No. 09-4, (22 July 2009).
3. See Dan Blumenthal and Aaron Friedberg, An American Strategy For Asia: A Report Of The Asia Strategy Working Group (American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, January 2009), 10.
4. Considering the Vietnamese model for developing DPRK, see L. Michelle Burgess, “Development Strategies for North Korea,” The Project on International Peace and Security (PIPS), Department of Government, The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA, paper presented for delivery at the first annual Project on International Peace and Security Conference sponsored by Booz Allen Hamilton in McLean, VA, 17 April 2009. For more analysis of DPRK economic reforms, see Jeffrey Robertson, “North Korea Nuclear Crisis--Issues and Implications,” Department of Parliamentary Library Information and Research Services, Current Issues Brief No. 18 2002-03, Commonwealth of Australia, 18 March 2003.
5. Lee Sanghee, An Approach to Managing North Korea (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, 20 November 2007), 5.