The legacy of policy missteps on Pyongyang is long and tortured. Behind all the disturbing failures of President Bush’s North Korea policy—including the inability to prevent North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006 and the removal of Pyongyang from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2008—run two themes that President Obama would do well to avoid.
Bush turned to engagement policy based on the false expectation that North Korea would eventually give up its nuclear program and weapons, when, in fact, Pyongyang was using negotiations as a deception strategy to gain time to pursue its nuclear ambitions. In the meantime, it extracted economic gains and other benefits, such as a peace treaty, to make the dictatorship more secure.
Second, despite his occasional use of tough verbiage, Bush was never able to translate his words into effective action due to fear of the North’s constant threats of war. Whenever Bush tried to exert serious (non-military) pressure, Pyongyang blocked it by invoking military brinkmanship, often calling Bush’s attempt a “declaration of war.” Each time Bush retreated, Washington encouraged the North to repeat the same scare tactics.
These two strategies—a diplomatic delaying game and military brinkmanship—have been the backbone of North Korea’s success in manipulating and weakening the U.S. government’s efforts.
In what promises to be the first major test of the Obama administration, Pyongyang is gearing up for the test launch of a long-range rocket scheduled to go off sometime between April 4 and April 8. Although Pyongyang claims it is a communications satellite, both U.S. and South Korean intelligence sources believe it to be a disguised test launch of the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile that could potentially reach Alaska, Hawaii, and the west coast of the United States.
The action, if successful, would be a crucial milestone for North Korea’s military advancement and substantially raise its offensive capability, its proliferation potential, and its leverage for future dealings with adversaries. The United States is very anxious to avert this provocative action, as are South Korea and Japan. But President Obama has said very little about North Korea, in relation to the missile launch or anything else. In fact, other top officials in the administration have not been of much help either.
Secretary of State Clinton initially described the North’s missile test as “unhelpful.” She later said the rocket launch would “violate the UN Security Council resolution 1718,” but failed to specify how the North will be penalized if it violates the decree. Asked what the United States might do if the missile launch takes place, she said, “I don’t want to talk about the hypothetical. We are still working to try to dissuade the North Koreans.”
The Obama administration’s special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, has used equally hollow turns of phrase: “We hope North Korea refrains from the provocation of firing a missile, and…if that [launch] does happen, then obviously we’ll have to…decide how to respond.”
Only belatedly, in late March, after the rocket was mounted on the launch pad, did representatives of the United States, South Korea, and Japan get together to issue a warning about bringing the matter to the UN Security Council. Yet they refrained from mentioning any strong, specific penalties.
Pyongyang, of course, quickly reacted by warning that a UN action to punish North Korea will be regarded as a “blatant hostile act.” Further, they warned, should Washington bring the matter to the Security Council it will cause the Six-Party Talks to break down, critically hurting the process of denuclearization. A pro-Pyongyang newspaper in Japan hinted that North Korea might resort to a second nuclear test in response to a UN sanction.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Japanese defense departments have been talking about plans to shoot down the missile. But, when there’s still time to issue a stiff warning in order to block the missile launch, planning such an attack—however defensive in nature—is more likely to provoke and encourage North Korea to carry out the test. (Fortunately, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has backed away in recent interviews from U.S. plans to shoot down the North Korean missile.)
The stakes are high: a missile launch would highlight Washington’s weakness. The Obama administration seems unwilling to exert strong pressure on Pyongyang against the launch because of its desire to continue the nuclear talks (with the lingering expectation that negotiation might succeed somehow) and perhaps also due to fear of violent reactions from the North Korean regime. These are the exactly same reasons that informed the failed policies of the Bush era.
In the long run, Obama’s approach, which emphasizes more engagement with, and acceptance of, Pyongyang than the policies pursued by Bush, is likely to grant even more precious time to the North.
In the end, the Obama administration may be writing the final chapter of America’s failed North Korea policy by bringing about a devastating U.S. surrender: abandoning the denuclearization effort, accepting the monstrous tyranny as a member of the world nuclear club, and opening the gateway for the North to take over the South.
It is too simplistic to think that the United States can still protect South Korea under its nuclear umbrella. Most likely, North Korea’s strategy will not involve waging a full-scale war, which Pyongyang knows it cannot win. Instead, it will focus on the following approaches: 1) conducting guerrilla and terror attacks against the South; 2) enlisting the support of China, which wants to preserve a Communist dictatorship as a neighbor; 3) weakening South Korea’s will to defend itself by stirring up the already vicious infighting in the South between the majority pro-American conservatives and the minority but very aggressive progressives and leftists sympathetic to the North; and 4) using nuclear brinkmanship as a barrier against U.S. support for the South.
Washington and Seoul have been losing the mind game with Pyongyang for decades. North Korea has weakened our will, dodged our pressures, and gained valuable time for their military advancement. In many ways, it is our repeated gullibility that has energized North Korea to continue its long-standing game of deception and hostile action.
The most urgent thing now is to issue a stern warning to Pyongyang clearly indicating intended punishments for the missile launch. Washington should do this regardless of what North Korea says about the Six-Party Talks, about reversing the denuclearization process, or about conducting a second nuclear test.
North Korea’s strategy has long been to threaten these kinds of hostile actions if Washington acts strongly and decisively against the regime. Actually the opposite is true: if the United States gives in—as it so often has—they will surely take these steps.
Beyond the storm over the missile launch, Washington (and Seoul) must formulate an aggressive strategy to exert all available pressures—economic, political, diplomatic, and psychological, with an emphasis on internationally mustered campaigns against the regime’s horrific human rights abuses—in a determined effort to induce constructive changes in North Korea.
Only a clear understanding of Pyongyang’s strategy and tactical manipulations of procrastination and brinkmanship, will prevent us from coddling the regime and allow the patience necessary to maintain the requisite pressures.
The ultimate goal should be the denuclearization and the liberation of the North Korean people from tyranny. To begin moving toward this end, the courage, clarity, and confidence of President Obama is sorely needed.
Peter Kang is executive vice president of the Korean Freedom and Democracy League and the author, most recently, of How to Deal with North Korea: Countering Its Strategic Deceptions.