The Obama administration has consistently proclaimed its commitment to achieving the complete and verifiable elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and weapons-development program.
However, there is no indication that administration officials have devised a clear strategy to achieve this goal even as they rigorously implement U.N. and U.S. sanctions against North Korea and continue to insist that North Korea return to six-party talks aimed at denuclearization.
It may be that U.S. officials have concluded that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il will never voluntarily agree to abandon his nuclear-weapons program and have shifted to an increasingly severe policy of containment aimed at compelling his cooperation.
It also is possible that the Obama administration is actually biding its time, seeking to manage the situation until circumstances become more advantageous to U.S. interests. Mr. Kim’s illness has lent a sense of urgency to the question of political succession in that regime. Perhaps the Obama administration is inclined to wait for the emergence of new North Korean leaders who might prove more amenable to denuclearization. The other options open to the U.S. government carry greater risks and/or require resources urgently needed elsewhere.
However, by attempting to manage rather than taking a creative approach to the situation, the United States may be missing an opportunity to reach a political settlement with the current leader. A deal with Mr. Kim might be more prudent and realistic for the United States than the current approach.
For one thing, as administration officials are aware, it is unrealistic to expect sanctions alone to bring North Korea to the table, ready to make concessions. Paradoxically, it could be argued that the greater the damage inflicted upon North Korea through sanctions, the harder it is for the North Korean leadership to accept U.S. and other international demands. The pattern of North Korean foreign-policy behavior has demonstrated that sanctions only increase defiance and belligerence.
The risk of the current approach is that the United States might fail to gain control over North Korean nuclear materials in a period marked by great social and political instabilities related to the eventual demise of the leader and political succession. None of the possible successors would be in a position of sufficient authority in the short term to make a momentous decision to abandon the nuclear-weapons program over the opposition of the North Korean military.
Current U.S. policy could lead to a situation wherein, ruling out the use of military force, denuclearization would fail and the United States would be forced to recognize North Korea as a de facto nuclear-weapons state. Japan and possibly South Korea would condemn any U.S. action in that direction as an act of appeasement clearly detrimental to their respective national interests. Such a move also would irretrievably damage U.S. efforts at nuclear nonproliferation in other parts of the globe.
A different path would entail the creation of a presidential advisory group/task force that would initiate direct bilateral talks with North Korean leadership in order to develop a range of mutually acceptable formulas for the resolution of core issues and to lay the groundwork for a comprehensive agreement.
Bilateral U.S.-North Korea talks would take place within the broader framework of multilateral engagement and should be preceded by meaningful consultation with Japan, South Korea, China and Russia. Indeed, a final draft agreement between the United States and North Korea on the nuclear issue would be subject to the endorsement of these key nations.
The current U.S. policy of sanctions combined with a wait-and-see attitude carries significant risks. It is true that the Obama administration has already made a solid offer for the resolution of the nuclear issue. However, it has yet to formulate a comprehensive set of compensatory/incentive programs that it is prepared to offer in return for denuclearization.
Initiating direct diplomatic engagement with North Korea, eventually leading to talks at the highest level and the working out of a comprehensive political settlement remains the best bet for advancing North Korean denuclearization and protecting U.S. interests.
Young C. Kim is professor of political science, emeritus, senior counselor and former director at the George Washington University’s Gaston Sigur Center for Asian Studies.