Pyongyang's latest nuclear test led to the same responses as the earlier ones: calls for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks and an overwhelming focus on how the present US approach is flawed and needs to change. It feels like we're in a time warp. You could write the same story about each North Korean nuclear test, updating the name of the North Korean leader, the US president and the US policy (this time known as 'strategic patience') that is the subject of criticism.
Not only is this time warp mind-numbingly repetitive, it is also based on two flawed assumptions. Correcting these assumptions and tweaking the 'strategic patience' approach in three ways may help get us out of this flawed and increasingly dangerous time warp.
First, using the latest North Korean nuclear test as a reason to restart the Six-Party Talks is wrong in principle and in practice. As noted by Japan, this nuclear test is the latest is a long line of North Korean actions that run counter to its Six-Party commitments. North Korea's actions show that nothing which is agreed in the Six-Party Talks affects North Korea's decades-long nuclearisation strategy. Restarting the talks, which permits North Korea another media-friendly gap in attempts to isolate it for its destabilising behaviour, sends the wrong message (do wrong and get rewarded in the hopes that you will not do wrong again) and will likely encourage further transgressions.
Second, China's policy towards North Korea should be the focus of criticism, not that of the US. China's rhetoric on North Korean nuclearisation has certainly become less contradictory to that of the US, Japan and South Korea. Yet China willingly provides the largest gaps in attempts to isolate North Korea for its nuclear destabilisation. Isolation is still the best tool available to try to change North Korea's nuclear calculations and has the significant added benefit of imposing costs on North Korea for its destabilising behaviour and for welching on its commitments. It also sends the right message to Pyongyang: do wrong, suffer the consequences.
Three tweaks to the US 'strategic patience' approach, supported by Japan and South Korea, would help correct these persistent assumptions and make the approach more consistent:
- All six parties should admit the twin realities that North Korea is a nuclear-armed state (hence comparisons with the Iran nuclear deal are false) and that Pyongyang shows no signs of altering this long-sought status. This will not be easy.
- The US, Japan and South Korea (and Russia and China, if willing) should declare the Six-Party Talks dead due to North Korea's continued transgressions. To not do so implies that the Six-Party Talks are more important to the US, Japan and South Korea than they are to North Korea.
- There should be greater efforts to crack down on known North Korean ways of getting around sanctions. Announcing new sanctions would be to fall into the time warp again. Expending more effort and diplomatic capital on truly enforcing the existing ones would be new.
These changes will not lead Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. But they would be more consistent in principle and practice and would raise the costs for North Korea of its transgressions and destabilisation, and increase the incentives for China to live up to its newly critical rhetoric towards its only formal ally. We should replace strategic patience (an inherently passive approach) with strategic determination.