Coordination and Realism on North Korea
By Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard, Jr. and Travis Sharp
As has been its habit over the years, the international community waits anxiously to see what North Korea will do next.
New satellite images indicate that Pyongyang may be preparing to test launch a version of its Taepodong-2 ballistic missile, perhaps as soon as the end of the month.
Though it may be capable of reaching as far as Alaska, the Taepodong-2's one and only flight test failed after 40 seconds in 2006. Of course, North Korea's threatening outward posture comes as it suffers internal confusion over who may succeed Kim Jong-il if the ``Dear Leader'' succumbs to ill-health.
This worrisome state of affairs brings one main issue into sharp relief. Today, one year after President Lee Myung-bak took office ― and at the dawn of President Barack Obama's first term ― it will be harder to denuclearize North Korea than it has ever been before.
Over the past eight years, North Korea has conducted its first nuclear test, upgraded its missiles, withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and quadrupled its fissile material stockpile.
While each of the countries involved in the six-party talks bears some responsibility for these failures, U.S. policy under President Bush earns special condemnation for its disjointedness and inconsistency.
Thankfully, one marvelous advantage of democracy is that when policies are not succeeding, citizens can peaceably elect new leaders to bring about change. Voters in South Korea, the United States, and Japan did this within the past 14 months.
Now, newly elected political leaders have a fresh opportunity to work together and make progress cooperatively on North Korea's nuclear program.
To achieve the shared goal of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, all parties will need to coordinate internally and with each other. They also will need to develop realistic expectations about what can be accomplished.
President Bush's North Korea policy was inconsistent because his administration was divided between two ideological camps, especially between 2001 and 2007.
On one side were the ``hawks'' or ``regime changers,'' led by former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who sought to isolate the North and hoped for the end of Kim Jong-il's reign.
On the other side were the ``doves'' or ``engagers,'' led by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who thought the six-party talks would produce results if the United States gave them a fair chance.
Feuding between the hawks and doves subsided during the last two years of Bush's term, the most productive period for the six parties, but by that point the Bush administration already was discredited internationally and could hope for only small victories.
Obama's North Korea Policy
President Obama and his team seem to be much more unified. During his campaign, the new Democratic President pledged ``to pursue the kind of direct and aggressive diplomacy with North Korea that can yield results,'' with the goal being the ``complete and verifiable elimination'' of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton espoused direct contact and engagement with Pyongyang during her own presidential campaign, a position she echoed on behalf of the Obama administration during her recent Asia trip.
Stephen Bosworth, appointed by Secretary Clinton to coordinate North Korea policy, wrote in 2008 that the United States should ``forge ahead with the denuclearization process'' while simultaneously beginning to integrate North Korea into the regional and global economies.
This level of agreement between President Obama and his top officials ought to make the United States more focused and effective when it comes to North Korea.
Coordination, however, is required not only at the national level.
The six parties must deliberate and act cooperatively in order to prevent North Korea from exploiting fissures in the alliance to derail steps forward. While relations between and among all of the six parties are important, no relationship is more important than the one between the United States and South Korea.
During 2008, President Lee refused to grant North Korea unconditional aid and instead tied any meaningful concessions to progress on denuclearization, thereby casting South Korea as the ``bad cop,'' in the classic American idiom, and leaving the United States to play ``good cop'' via the quixotic shuttle diplomacy of Christopher Hill.
This was a 180-degree reversal from the period when South Korea employed the ``Sunshine" policy of unconditional engagement and the United States set as an unrealistic precondition to negotiations the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North's nuclear program.
As a result of U.S.-South Korea role reversal in 2008, North Korea developed its so-called Tongmi Bongnam tactic of engaging the United States and shunning South Korea.
During her recent Asia jaunt, however, Secretary Clinton made clear that Pyongyang's tactic will not lead to a split between allies.
``There is no issue on which we are more united than North Korea,'' said Secretary Clinton. ``North Korea is not going to get a different relationship with the United States while insulting and refusing dialogue with the Republic of Korea,'' she added.
This is a positive sign; No matter which diplomatic strategy is implemented, the United States and South Korea will act in concert as befits their long-time alliance.
If coordinating policy at the national and international levels is the first step, the second step must be setting realistic expectations about what can be accomplished. This will be even more difficult, and serious people will disagree.
Pyongyang's Fundamental Objective
North Korean actions often are enigmatic, but there is no reason to doubt that the regime's fundamental objective is national survival. This means that, as Stephen Bosworth put it, ``Pyongyang sees its (nuclear) arsenal as a means to an end, not an end in itself - something U.S. leaders never understand.''
North Korea will fully denuclearize only when it has obtained the political arrangements that guarantee its survival. These arrangements include formal diplomatic relations with the United States, a peace agreement that officially ends the Korean War, and integration into the global economy.
If it does not achieve these objectives, North Korea will continue to use its nuclear program to extract concessions that at least will keep it alive awhile longer, even if not guaranteeing the regime's long-term survival.
Gradual Opening of North Korea
Some American hawks cannot accept that the United States lets a repressive government like North Korea's stay in power. The alternative, however, could be much worse. Attempts at regime change might cause Pyongyang to become desperate and lash out violently at its immediate neighbor or launch a missile at U.S. forces stationed on Guam or Okinawa.
Even if the current regime could be displaced, would the resulting chaos really benefit the North Korean people? A sudden change in government might unleash even greater human suffering or even outright war with South Korea, with all the frightening consequences.
To set realistic expectations about North Korea's nuclear program is to accept that complete and verifiable denuclearization will not happen today, and it will not happen tomorrow.
Phased nuclear stockpile reductions by North Korea should be met by political, security, and economic incentives from the six parties.
The hope should not be for an immediate change in the North's behavior, nor for regime change or collapse. The hope should be for a gradual opening of North Korea to the outside world.
This steady transition from rogue nuclear state to international stakeholder should be pursued with the full understanding that there will be setbacks.
But not every disappointment is reason to give up. Kim Jong-il's eventual successor may seek to make life better for his people, and the six parties should provide every opportunity for him to do so.