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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
Whoever enters the Oval Office on January 20, 2017 will face an array of foreign policy crises that were unimaginable a quarter of a century ago. In 1991, optimists declared the “end of history” after the Berlin Wall came down – Professor Francis Fukuyama famously predicted “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Things haven’t quite worked out that way in varied places across the globe, from Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Crimea, Russia, Afghanistan, China and the South China Sea. All of these pressing issues will be clamoring for the attention of the new president and his or her staff. But lurking, as always, somewhere in the shadows, will be North Korea.
President Obama entered office in January 2009 with an inaugural speech, seen as directed at then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, pledging that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” North Korea responded two months later by abducting two American journalists on the Chinese border. This was followed closely by Pyongyang’s second detonation of a nuclear device in May 2009. Not reassuring.
All of these pressing issues will be clamoring for the attention of the new president and his or her staff. But lurking, as always, somewhere in the shadows, will be North Korea.
Obama’s second attempt at rapprochement with Pyongyang came soon after the emergence of a new leader, Kim Jong Un, with the ill-fated Leap Day Agreement of February 29, 2012. The U.S. State Department announced that North Korea had “agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities.”
The tentative agreement came to an abrupt end just six weeks later when Pyongyang, reneging on the missile moratorium, launched a long-range missile reportedly to put a satellite into orbit in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung’s birth. The launch failed but so did the Leap Day Agreement.
Thus emerged the Obama Administration policy of “strategic patience,” waiting for North Korea to come to reason and to return to the bargaining table under the condition of “CVID” (a complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program).
At the same time Washington has periodically declared, as President Obama just again did following Pyongyang’s most recent nuclear test, that “the United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state.”
Given that the September 9th nuclear test was Pyongyang’s fifth, four of which have occurred on Obama’s watch, declaring non-acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear state appears about as realistic as an irate father telling his pregnant daughter that he will never accept her loss of virginity.
With a “nuclear free world” a declared Administration priority ever since President Obama’s first major foreign policy speech in Prague in April of 2009, North Korea’s unabashed flaunting of the non-proliferation priorities of the current American president must be a particular sore point.
The fact is that North Korea has steadily continued the development of its missile and nuclear technology, including efforts to miniaturize its nuclear weapons and to provide for flexibility with a solid fuel, submarine ballistic missile launch, as it did earlier this year.
Washington, meanwhile, seeks to kick the can down the road as it deals with what are seen as more pressing crises in the Middle East, Ukraine, the South China Sea and elsewhere. But while the Obama Administration has now almost successfully run out the clock on its policy of benign neglect of North Korea, the next administration may well pay the consequences.
North Korea’s unabashed flaunting of the non-proliferation priorities of the current American president must be a particular sore point.
As Joel Wit pointed out in a September 13th piece in the New York Times, North Korea has carried out 17 missile tests and two nuclear tests in just this year alone. Those who would depict North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as some nuclear-mad Dr. Strangelove who “stopped worrying and loved the bomb” fail to realize that there is method to his madness.
Through all of the Dennis Rodman-drama and the bloody purges, including that of his own uncle, Kim Jong Un has kept his eye on the prize: developing a credible deterrent force that will assure that he and his regime are never taken out like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi, who succumbed to international pressure to terminate their own weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.
TAKING PYONGYANG SERIOUSLY
North Korea presents a credible nuclear threat to not only South Korea and Japan, but to U.S. military bases in the Pacific. It will soon have the capability and flexibility, via submarine missile launches and long-range ballistic missiles, to threaten the American homeland. This makes North Korea a greater potential threat to American security than either ISIS or Iran.
…the Obama Administration has now almost successfully run out the clock on its policy of benign neglect of North Korea
Pyongyang may soon be able to engage in that age-old strategy: the Mexican stand-off. In the not-too-distant future, Kim Jong Un may ask a question similar to that of the hawkish Chinese General Zhu Chenghu, who reportedly queried a delegation of correspondents in Hong Kong a decade ago over whether the U.S. was prepared to sacrifice Los Angeles for Taipei. Kim’s question, of course, would be over sacrificing Los Angeles for Seoul or Tokyo.
While many doubt whether Beijing would truly unleash a nuclear Armageddon, even over the highly inflammatory nationalist issue of Taiwan, Kim would seem more than willing to put millions of his own populace at risk, as he has already done through food deprivation, to score a military point, especially if he felt his regime survival was threatened.
Hunkering down in one of North Korea’s many famed mountain tunnel complexes, Kim Jong Un may just be willing to carry through on North Korea’s long-standing threat to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire” with a mortar, missile or even a tactical nuclear strike.
The American people would then face the hard choice of honoring long-term treaty commitments under the shadow of a potential nuclear threat or, alternatively, see the post-War U.S.-led defense structure in the Asia-Pacific region rapidly unravel.
A Mexican standoff on the Korean peninsula would soon dwarf any other potential crisis facing the next American president. Sitting smack in the center of where the strategic interests of three of the world’s major nuclear powers (Washington, Beijing, Moscow) collide, and with three other potential nuclear powers (Seoul, Tokyo and Taipei) right in the neighborhood, Kim Jong Un’s playing with nuclear fire would certainly set off alarm bells.
Kim would seem more than willing to put millions of his own populace at risk
The Korean peninsula also sits at the crossroads of the East Asian engine that drives the global economy, so that any potential crisis would send stock markets diving and place global commerce at jeopardy.
By 2020, as Joel Wit and other experts have cautioned, Pyongyang may have a hydrogen bomb mounted on a missile and ready to launch. Four more years of strategic patience will not stem the growing nuclear threat posed by North Korea. To avoid a Mexican nuclear standoff will require making North Korea a foreign policy priority for the next Administration.