What are the implications of the emergence of a nuclear North Korea? And what should Washington’s long-term goals for relations with Pyongyang be for the future? These are two questions that North Korea specialist Joel Wit recently sought to answer at a policy event at Yonsei University, Seoul.
With North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs having developed with little tangible hindrance in recent years, Wit told his audience that the Unha rocket program is now likely just “the tip of the iceberg”. Despite trying not to be alarmist, Wit also says that a North Korean Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of targeting the West Coast of America might not be as far away as some think.
Having served as a former State Department Coordinator for the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework from 1995-1999 and now a Visiting Fellow at John Hopkins University in Washington DC, Joel Wit argues there are eight reasons why North Korea’s weapons programs could soon pose a direct and significant threat to the U.S.
8 BIG ISSUES: NUCLEAR NORTH KOREAN NIGHTMARE?
1. Wit underscores broader problems that could be caused by continuing U.S. animosity with Pyongyang, suggesting that other nations in the region could soon be threatened by a deteriorating U.S. – DPRK relationship.
2. Acknowledging Pyongyang’s proliferation record, if unchecked North Korea could become a bigger arms dealer in both the region and beyond. Claims that North Korea already sold nuclear technology to Syria several years ago have long circulated, but how should the U.S. respond to a sudden increase in potential nuclear proliferation? Highlighting the potential for trouble, Wit argued that some in Washington feel that nuclear proliferation should become a ‘red line’ issue and something that the U.S. would respond to with force.
3. A third problem with Pyongyang’s developing nuclear capabilities is the increased chance that North Korea becomes more belligerent in the region. Local conflicts could easily escalate into regional conflicts that might necessitate the involvement of the U.S. or China, Wit argued.
4. The longer North Korea’s nuclear program grows, the more U.S. allies in the region will need to rely on Washington’s nuclear umbrella. But how long will this policy be sustainable in East Asia, and how long before alliances in the region begin to fail or change? To underline his point, Wit said that doubts about the U.S. capability to ensure a nuclear umbrella were already underway in some quarters in the ROK.
5. Another potential issue relates to the ongoing revision of war plans in face of increasing North Korean capabilities. Wit noted, “It is impractical to think the U.S. will send hundreds of thousands of troops to South Korea, as we don’t have hundreds of thousands of troops to send.”
6. Wit also observed that concurrent to the increasing threat of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. is dealing with progressively steepening defense budget cuts. He suggested that as these two issues converge, problems could accentuate.
7. Reflecting recent strains caused by North Korea’s nuclear and rocket testing, Wit suggested that Pyongyang will continue to remain an unwelcome thorn in the side of the Sino-U.S. relationship.
8. Finally, Wit cautioned that if North Korea does collapse or become unstable in the next decade, then nuclear weapons will become the wildcard in predicting how things transpire. As different domestic groups struggle for power, the U.S. will have to keep a close eye on the North Korean nuclear arsenal, lest it leak out of the country or worse, become a tool of power struggle.
Rounding up, Wit told the audience in Seoul that it was critical that leaders now spend more time focusing on these ‘big issues’ and less on reactions to immediate problems and trying to develop short term solutions.
LOOKING BACK: THE ROAD TO NOWHERE
Having looked ahead, in the second half of his presentation Wit moved on to look back. Why had U.S. and South Korean policy over the past four years been a ‘disaster’? According to the former State Dept. official, it was simply due to a ‘lack of policy’.
The first thing to understand, according to Wit, is that North Korea is serious about its goals. He explained that Pyongyang understands what American and South Korean leaders want and said that the North Korean leadership have their own set of objectives with these relationships. Conversely, Wit believes that U.S. policy has been shaped by a ‘lack of seriousness’ and the belief in myths like the DPRK is a failed state, a hermit kingdom, or in peril of imminent collapse.
To underscore his point, Wit detailed how he believes the U.S. lacks ideas and lacks a strategy. And in the current circumstances, Wit said that Washington needs to take a step back and take ‘a serious look at the policy and the alternatives’. While he was hopeful a reassessment of North Korea policy might be on the agenda for the new Obama administration, given that so many of the same people are in many of the same positions, he warned there was cause for skepticism. But the self-confessed Democrat supporter did not hold back and said that he lays much of blame on the Obama administration. And because so much North Korean policy is still controlled ‘straight out of the White House’, he said it was plausible to put the blame at the feet of even Obama himself.
Wit summarizes the U.S. policy failure with North Korea succinctly as ‘weak sanctions, weak diplomacy’.
With weak sanctions, Wit said that the slowly expanding UN cycle has not been effective and that China continues to water down attempt to penalize North Korea. Even when new sanctions can be agreed upon, he explained that their implementation has so farbeen continually problematic and poor.
On weak diplomacy, Wit pointed to the ‘Leap Day’ deal specifically, which he said seemed no more an agreement than a deal. While the U.S. thought a “deal” had been negotiated, it was clear in reality that Pyongyang and Washington were never on the same page.
Wit concluded by saying that current U.S. failures were just another example of Washington leading from behind. In the case of the DPRK, this meant either following Seoul’s policy or reacting to the North’s actions. On he one hand Wit called for a tougher stance, but on the other, for a more forward and open form of diplomacy.
Wit underscored how it was important that the U.S. cannot shut down diplomatic interactions every time the DPRK breaks an agreement and that Washington needs to keep more channels open in the future.
Wit was joined by Yonsei’s Prof. John Delury and spoke to an audience that included Yonsei students, human rights activists, and other North Korea watchers.
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