Once the current focus on negotiations with Iran to curb its nuclear weapons program ebbs, attention will inevitably turn once again to the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, as North Korea is formally known, and how to deal with it. Already some pundits are wondering in what way U.S. talks with Iran can be leveraged to reopen discussions with North Korea.
Sooner or later, the U.S. will realize that talking with North Korea is better than ignoring it. However, let us first recognize that one definition of either insanity or stupidity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. Let us hope that U.S. diplomacy takes a different path than it has followed for roughly two and a half decades. An overview of these efforts is informative.
The United States does not have a stellar record when dealing with the North. In fact, the record is of one abject failure after another. There has been no success in getting the reclusive – and admittedly difficult to deal with – country to give up its nuclear weapons or stop its ICBM development.
THE DANCE BEGINS
Troubles in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue began in 1989 when the North was suspected of developing a nuclear bomb, despite having signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985. The North was not allowing in any International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors at the time.
To simplify a long and convoluted sequence of events, when IAEA inspectors were finally permitted to look into matters in 1992, they found discrepancies between what North Korea had previously declared and what the limited IAEA inspections revealed. Further inspections were blocked.
However in 1994, the U.S. and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework in which the North agreed to cease plutonium production. In return, the North would be given petroleum and two light water reactors. Not long after the signing, the U.S. discovered that the North was engaged in uranium enrichment, a fact that North Korea admitted in 2002. The U.S. countered by stopping all petroleum shipments, and the light water reactors were never built. Further inspections of DPRK nuclear facilities were not permitted.
Despite this, the U.S. agreed to participate in the Six-Party Talks hosted by China, aimed at resolving the nuclear impasse, which began in 2003 and also included Japan, Russia, and South Korea. After fits and starts over the following six years, the talks were finally abandoned in 2009 with no substantive progress on the North Korean nuclear issue.
Analysis of these and other events since then clearly reveals that North Korea has outmaneuvered the U.S. and its Northeast Asian allies for 25-plus years
On February 29, 2012, the U.S. and North Korea signed the Leap Day Deal in which the North agreed to a moratorium on its nuclear and missile programs with IAEA inspections in exchange for food. A mere 16 days later, the North conducted an ICBM test under the guise of putting a satellite into orbit.
Analysis of these and other events since then clearly reveals that North Korea has outmaneuvered the U.S. and its Northeast Asian allies for 25-plus years. It has done so using a modus operandi that I call “the Dance” and which has the following steps:
Step 1 – North Korea wants or needs something, most often food or petroleum.
Step 2 – North Korea creates tension to get attention.
Step 3 – Others initially ignore the activity and attribute it to North Korea merely “acting out.” Note that Steps 3 and 4 are optional if others skip directly to Step 5.
Step 4 – North Korea increases tension through more violent acts or extreme rhetoric.
Step 5 – Others finally pay attention and agree to discuss resolution of the tension with North Korea.
Step 6 – North Korea agrees to stop its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for what it needs or wants: food, petroleum, or other aid.
Step 7 – Once the aid is received, North Korea soon finds – or invents – a way to justify not honoring its commitment.
Step 8 – When needs or wants arise again, North Korea does a “Number Two” – (pun fully intended!).
During the protracted efforts to denuclearize North Korea, another threat was developing. Even though our intelligence reported a massive buildup of conventional weapons along the DMZ targeting the South Korean capital of Seoul, nothing was done. Now it is too late. Any opportunity for a preemptive strike against the North’s nuclear sites has consequently been lost, for it would result in horrendous destruction raining down on the northern parts of South Korea. Consequently, the only option remaining is diplomacy.
THE U.S. SHOULD LEAD
The United States might begin by giving North Korea what every small and desperate country wants: respect. Stop with the name-calling, stop with the theatrical mouthings by political hacks who ought to know better, and start to engage in meaningful discourse. What does it cost? Perhaps a bit of “face.” Well, what is more important here, a little “face,” or a chance at improving regional stability and security?
Actually, we have already lost face by our refusal to see North Korea as it really is. The facts are that the DPRK is a renegade country with a small nuclear arsenal, a crude but likely effective delivery system, and enough conventional rockets and short-range missile aimed at densely populated areas of South Korea to make residents there quite nervous.
It is time to abandon our head-in-the-sand position and admit that North Korea is indeed a nuclear power
It is time to abandon our head-in-the-sand position and admit that North Korea is indeed a nuclear power. The Non-Proliferation Treaty won’t fall apart by this recognition, for it has worked – and will continue to work – in keeping trustworthy nations honest. It has had, however, no effect whatsoever on nations such as Iran and North Korea, so why pretend that it does? In consideration of years and years of facts, it is difficult to avoid concluding that “the Dance” is a terpsichorean tragedy.
To be sure, there are no guarantees that talking with North Korea will produce anything of positive value. For one thing, it is highly improbable that North Korea would agree to give up its nukes and missiles, for those programs ensure its survival. And since human rights violations are part and parcel of how the regime sustains itself, it is also unlikely that any discussion on that subject would yield much benefit. Even so, who is to say?
Regardless, there are a host of other issues that would benefit from discussion with the North. Examples that readily come to mind are (a) reunions for families separated by the Korean War, (b) food and nutritional aid for children and nursing mothers, and (c) medical assistance in combating tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases, just for starters. Beginning with issues such as these could lead to progress in other areas.
Readers are invited to submit their own ideas. So, the question is, “Do we know how to talk?”