Current international policy vectors toward North Korea have largely failed to curtail North Korea’s WMD programs and change its policies. As Pyongyang prepares for a possible sixth nuclear test, it’s clear a new approach is called for.
This year North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and multiple missiles tests, and staged a rare Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) congress signalling the 'official start to Kim Jong-un’s era', with no changes in its political course. Pyongyang has withstood the latest round of international sanctions, a spate of defections by North Korean elites, and deepening international diplomatic isolation.
The ongoing impasse in resolving the North Korean nuclear conundrum stems largely from the geopolitical deadlock created by the confluence of growing tensions between great powers in East Asia on the one hand, and the varying perceptions, narratives, and historical imprints of North Korea’s 'impending collapse' on the other. It's a combination that amplifies North Korea's siege mentality and encourages its political brinkmanship.
The Obama administration’s strategic patience, which could also be fairly described as muddling through, might have worked for the two presidential terms, but is not sustainable as a long-term policy option for the next US administration. This growing realisation has propelled a number of task forces around the Washington D.C. beltway to rethink US-North Korea policies independently of the outcome of last week's Presidential election.
Beyond 'Strategic Patience'
According to the Independent Task Force on North Korea organised by the Council on Foreign Relations, 'it is not enough to maintain the status quo on the peninsula or wait for circumstances to evolve in a favorable way'. Its main recommendation is to 'elevate the [North Korean] issue to the top of the US-China bilateral relationship'. This sounds inviting but it would be costly. Indeed, much to Washington's displeasure, this policy would likely reflect Chinese terms, with the US forced to return to the negotiating table with North Korea.
The US has two other options. First, its new policy may rely on hard power – such as the 'Tailored Deterrence Strategy' that contains options for pre-emptive strikes in case of imminent use of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, while providing nuclear assurance measures and extended deterrence guarantees to South Korea. An element of this strategy can be seen in the decision to proceed with THAAD deployment in South Korea and could also be found in ongoing integration of US-ROK capabilities, and strengthening the intensity of joint military exercises. Beijing, however, opposes US military presence and influence on the Korean Peninsula, so going further down this path would further deepen geostrategic rifts between China and the United States in East Asia.
A second scenario would have the new US administration strengthen its 'tailored sanctions' policy against the North Korean elites, primarily by seeking leverage over China to rigorously implement the same. Beijing again, however, places a greater strategic priority on 'status-quo' – that is preventing a North Korean implosion. Such a collapse would arguably undermine China’s regional geostrategic position by removing traditional strategic buffer zone vis-à-vis the U.S. provided by North Korea, and would significantly increase PLA’s military deployment requirements in northeast China.
Another alternative could be for the US to recognise North Korea as a nuclear weapon state, akin to Pakistan or India, and negotiate a peace treaty that would provide provisions for US interests on the Korean Peninsula. It is difficult to predict how such an unlikely turn of events would impact North Korea’s policies and behaviour.
South Korea’s Failed 'Trustpolitik'
Turning now to South Korea, since 2013, Park Geun-hye’s administration has pursued 'Trustpolitik' toward North Korea, combining tough line with flexible policies open to negotiations. Implicit in this policy is ambiguity and uncertainty. Its main premise is that North Korea would be deterred by South Korea’s military capabilities, while simultaneously responding positively to parallel inter-Korean negotiations.
In theory, this policy delinks humanitarian outreach and socio-economic engagement initiatives from denuclearisation. In practice, after a series of North Korean active measures, including laying landmines in the DMZ that wounded South Korean soldiers, the ‘engagement’ initiatives ceased completely. The closure of the vital Kaesong Industrial Complex has left the two countries with zero channels through which they could build the 'trust' and 'co-prosperity' that Park Geun-hye promised in her Dresden speech in 2014.
Following the North Korean fourth nuclear test in January this year, South Korea increased diplomatic pressure for international sanctions, and ultimately declared 'no-dialog' approach as a new guiding principle toward North Korea. Seoul has also intensified global public diplomacy efforts with a narrative that the North Korean regime is bound to collapse in the near future, with a 'reliable' maximum timeframe of just a few years. A new body, the Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation, was established and research teams dispatched to former Eastern Bloc countries to learn from their transitions to market economy and parliamentary democracy in a bid to prepare for unification at home.
The Third Way – decentralising North Korea Policies
Current North Korea policies, based on sanctions and military pressure led by the US and coupled with South Korean unification policies, fail to address the geopolitical reality surrounding the Korean Peninsula, most importantly the interests of China. In fact, the very idea of a North Korea policy characterised by a broader consensus by great powers and international community is misleading. Countries will always seek ways to elude sanctions motivated by their national interests.
An alternative strategy would be to shift the North Korean question away from the large structures of the international community, such as the UN, toward either individual countries or local regional platforms that are not hindered by the diversity of interests but rather build their policies based on shared historical experience.
In particular, contrary to the still ongoing Scandinavian models of engaging North Korea through training and capacity building, which had some effect but no real change in North Korea’ foreign policies, other countries may be better suited to develop their respective policies to de-isolate North Korea. The historical legacy of close links, contacts, and experiences of post-socialist states in Central Europe such as the Czech Republic suggests such approaches are more likely to provide new opportunities for cooperation and confidence building measures. Such engagement may gradually shape North Korea’s choices from within; 'saving face' for a regime that is in a desperate need for exit ramps.
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