The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
One persistent misperception about North Korea is that its provocative international behavior is unpredictable. In the last two years alone, North Korea has held four U.S. citizens hostage; fired a long-range missile over Japan; conducted further nuclear testing; and, most recently, torpedoed the South Korean warship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors on board.
In fact, Pyongyang's methods have been remarkably consistent since the early 1960s, when Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founding dictator and its current leader’s father, purged all potential rivals and consolidated power. Its strategy has been to lash out at its enemies when it perceives them to be weak or distracted, up the ante in the face of international condemnation (while blaming external scapegoats), and then negotiate for concessions in return for an illusory promise of peace. Incapable of competing with economically flourishing South Korea, the North can rely only on military and political brinkmanship to make up ground. This has been a stunningly successful game plan for the isolated, impoverished nation that sits amidst the world’s most powerful status quo states, including China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.
North Korea's policy toward the Obama administration has closely followed this time-tested strategy. The United States has a long and undistinguished history of playing into the North’s game plan. However, the Obama administration has deviated from this pattern and adopted a policy that U.S. officials have dubbed “strategic patience.” The White House has attempted to remain calm in the face of North Korean provocations and has resisted making deals with Pyongyang merely for the sake of defusing tension. In view of the North Korean regime’s strategic outlook, it is the right approach.
The North has long chosen to confront its adversaries when they are weak. In 1968, as the political tide was turning against the United States in Vietnam, North Korea dispatched a 31-man commando team to kill South Korean President Park Chung Hee. Although South Korea thwarted the raid, Pyongyang continued its offensive two days later, when its forces captured the U.S. intelligence ship Pueblo in international waters off the coast of the Korean peninsula. One U.S. sailor was killed in the seizure; the remaining 82 crewmembers were held captive under torturous conditions for 11 months until they were released following an apology by the Lyndon Johnson administration.
After enduring international condemnation, North Korea often decides to stay the course and even increase political tensions. During the Pueblo standoff, North Korea carried out commando raids against South Korea, sending more than 120 soldiers that October and additional troops the following year. The South Korean military quelled the raids, but Pyongyang, emboldened by continued U.S. difficulties in Vietnam, soon greeted the new Nixon administration with further violence. On April 15, 1969, on the occasion of Kim Il Sung's birthday, a North Korean jet shot down a U.S. reconnaissance plane, killing all 31 U.S. servicemen aboard.
The United States attempted to manage these crises in the 1960s by responding with conciliatory gestures aimed at alleviating tensions. North Korea learned that it could provoke, and even attack, the world’s greatest military power with impunity.
The North has redeployed this tactic in recent years. In 2006, for example, it attempted to capitalize on U.S. difficulties in Iraq. As Americans were celebrating July 4, North Korea carried out a barrage of missile tests, even firing a long-range missile in the direction of Japan.
This was the prelude to a far more confrontational act: North Korea’s first-ever nuclear test, which occurred on October 9, the eve of the Korean Workers’ Party Founding Day. By demonstrating its nuclear capabilities, North Korea painted the Bush administration into a corner. It also blatantly defied UN Security Council Resolution 1695 -- passed earlier that year in response to the North’s missile tests -- which called on Pyongyang to “abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.”
The October 2006 nuclear test yielded a more strongly worded Security Council resolution (1718), which demanded that North Korea “not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile” and called upon UN member states to “ensure” that funds supporting North Korea’s nuclear program be cut off. More important, it triggered a change of heart in the George W. Bush administration, which chose to abandon its effective policy of financially squeezing North Korean elites' cash flow and instead negotiate a nuclear agreement with North Korea the following February. In return for Pyongyang’s promise to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, Washington sequentially unfroze North Korea’s illicit funds, resumed food and fuel aid, and delisted North Korea from the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Leaders in North Korea believe that their aggressive behavior can coax such concessions yet again. Thinking that the Obama administration -- coping with two ongoing wars and a serious economic crisis -- would be quick to opt for diplomacy, Pyongyang launched a long-range missile in April 2009, dominating global headlines and diminishing Obama's then high-profile visit to Europe. Pyongyang assumed that Obama could be bullied into seeking conciliatory diplomacy. Such assumptions, however, have yet to be borne out.
After raising the stakes with its opponents, the North often retreats and demands negotiations. It did this in 1972, when, stunned by U.S.-Chinese rapprochement the previous year, it agreed to hold the first-ever high-level talks with the South since the Korean War. Since then, Pyongyang has intermittently launched “peace offensives” at the United States, hoping to sign a treaty that would lead to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South.
Yet Pyongyang often sues for peace while forging ahead with forbidden activity. Even after it entered negotiations with South Korea in 1972, it continued hostilities against its southern neighbor. North Korean agents kidnapped South Korean fishermen and made another attempt on the life of South Korean President Park Chung Hee in 1974, leading to the death of his wife.
In the Kim Jong Il era, North Korea has consistently applied this approach of illusory concessions to the nuclear issue. In the wake of signing the 1994 Agreed Framework -- a deal in which Pyongyang agreed to freeze its plutonium-based nuclear weapons program in exchange for energy aid -- the North sealed its main nuclear reactor and opened doors to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. But North Korean leaders quickly flouted the plan. In 2008, Pyongyang drafted an 18,000-page laundry list of nuclear activities while refusing to provide samples from its nuclear complex to outside inspectors on request. Despite its duplicity, North Korea still managed to be removed from the State Department’s terrorism blacklist in October of that year.
In recent weeks, Pyongyang has dangled an olive branch before the Obama administration. Apparently pleased with the weakly worded July 9 UN Security Council presidential statement on the sinking of the Cheonan -- which, despite overwhelming evidence of North Korean culpability, failed to blame the country for the act -- Pyongyang has suggested that it would return to the six-party denuclearization talks. By intimating a willingness to rejoin the multilateral forum, the North is seeking to deflect the negative attention it has received from the Cheonan incident. Once again, the North is presenting an image of reconciliation in the hopes of more political and economic rewards.
While angling for compromise, the North often offers meaningless theatrical gestures. In 2008, it allowed the New York Philharmonic to play in Pyongyang. Later that year, it blew up an old nuclear cooling tower, one that had exhausted its lifespan and could easily be rebuilt. Such dramatic displays are designed to bolster proponents of concessionary diplomacy in the United States and South Korea. They target those who unwittingly take the patronizing view that North Korea, lacking a strategic mindset of its own, merely reacts to positive stimuli -- be they musical overtures or diplomatic civility.
Yet U.S. policymakers should not be deceived. Amidst ongoing talks with Washington this past decade, North Korea has sent nuclear technology to Syria, as revealed in the wake of the Israeli air strike on a North Korean–built nuclear plant, Al Kibar, in eastern Syria in September 2007. In July 2008, North Korean guards killed a South Korean tourist taking a walk along a resort in the North’s eastern coast, a site funded by the South.
Meanwhile, Pyongyang has pressed ahead with drug trafficking, money laundering, and U.S. currency counterfeiting. It has also attempted to export arms in violation of UN resolutions. Last December, for example, a North Korean shipment of rockets and rocket-propelled grenades was seized in Bangkok that, according to Thai officials, was destined for Iran. In a failed plot earlier this year, Pyongyang sent agents posing as defectors into South Korea to assassinate a high-level North Korean defector.
The incitement from Pyongyang is likely to continue. North Korea's artillery barrage on and near the western maritime border with South Korea on August 9 and its seizure, the day before, of a South Korean fishing boat allegedly in North Korea’s eastern exclusive economic zone are just the latest examples of Pyongyang’s predictable game plan.
Based on this trajectory, North Korea will likely conduct another nuclear test in the coming months, tempting the Obama administration -- which has yet to yield to Pyongyang’s playbook -- to start afresh with negotiations early next year. Possible dates for the test include September 8, the eve of North Korea's National Foundation Day, and October 10, Party Founding Day.
Moreover, the political bureau of North Korea’s ruling Communist Party is scheduled to convene a rare meeting in early September where Kim’s heir apparent may be formally introduced. North Korea's intention to implement another father-to-son power transition makes the odds of a nuclear test even more compelling -- if only to bolster the inexperienced inheritor's military credentials. For a nation that professes to pursue “military first” politics, the implementation of another hereditary succession is certain to carry greater legitimacy if it comes on the heels of a dramatic demonstration of military prowess.
The U.S. should maintain its strategic patience with North Korea. It must put sustained pressure on Pyongyang's points of vulnerability -- principally, the cash flow needed to sustain its palace economy. In recent weeks, the Obama administration has repeatedly stated that it would strengthen financial sanctions against the North Korean leadership, targeting its counterfeiting, money laundering, and other illicit activities.
Furthermore, North Korea has shown itself to be sensitive to criticisms of its human rights abuses in the past, categorically denying that it perpetrates human rights violations in its “workers’ paradise.” Thanks to public pressure, the North has reduced its execution rate in recent years while sporadically relaxing prison sentences for border-crossers. Although such changes may be more a function of logistic difficulty than determined policy, the fact that foreign criticisms impel North Korea to cover up its manifold human rights abuses is beyond doubt. The White House should take a firm stand on North Korea's human rights violations, which would not only give hope to the long-suffering North Korean people but also impel, if only incrementally, Pyongyang to relax its crackdown on political prisoners. At the very least, such a principled stance would galvanize international cooperation on reunifying the two Koreas under a democratic government should the North’s regime collapse.
These policies will help the Obama administration avoid getting drawn into a dangerous military conflict with North Korea. Today, the North Korean regime faces the greatest existential threat since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Beset by a perennial economic crisis, increasing information flow into the country, and the uncertainty of another dynastic succession -- while struggling to rein in an ever-increasing number of North Koreans who wish to escape to the South -- Kim Jong Il must confront serious questions of long-term self-preservation. Amidst all this, Kim, who suffered a stroke two years ago, is himself racing against the clock. A dictator for life, he used to enjoy the advantage of outlasting democratically elected leaders. Strategic patience will best exploit his new limitation.
Time is no longer on Pyongyang’s side. The U.S. should avoid chasing North Korea through a revolving door of provocation and deception, unwittingly subscribing to the tactics presented all too plainly in the decades-old Pyongyang playbook.