North Korea's actions over the past month, including its restarting of its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and its threats this week to conduct nuclear and ballistic missile tests, serve as the latest reminder that American policy toward Pyongyang has failed. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is likely to continue an approach to Pyongyang utilized by the Clinton and Bush administrations that has not prevented North Korea from obtaining a nuclear capability, developing the means to deliver it over great distances, and proliferating related technology.
The administration should consider alternatives. A successful North Korea policy needs to discard a key faulty assumption: that the regime will give up its sole lifeline for an ample amount of inducements. It is now clear that the Kim Jong Il regime has no intention of trading away its nuclear or missile programs. Those programs enable the regime to generate resources through proliferation proceeds and to extort foreign assistance. This sustenance allows Kim to sustain his brutal regime, which holds some 200,000 political prisoners.
U.S. North Korea policy should also be based on realistic assumptions, including the limitations of the parties involved. The Six-Party Talks were predicated on the premise that Beijing would use its influence over Pyongyang to curb its nuclear activities. This did not happen. China never cut aid to North Korea for a sustained period, and UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1718, passed after North Korea's October 2006 nuclear test, was never seriously enforced by any country, including the United States.
A realistic approach to North Korea lies in deterrence, counter-proliferation and real efforts to erode the regime's repression apparatus over time.
First, we should resuscitate the U.S.-Japan alliance, which was damaged by the Bush administration's focus on cutting a deal with Pyongyang. This requires a new commitment to alliance military cooperation including on missile and air defense. Japan should be permitted to acquire the top-of-the-line F-22 fighter jet as a symbol of renewed partnership. We need to plan and exercise seriously with the Japanese about North Korean contingencies ranging from proliferation to missile attacks. And we must not dismiss the genuine concerns of the Japanese public about issues such as Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. Second, we should redefine our alliance with South Korea. The North's primary threat to the South is its arsenal of hundreds of artillery systems that could devastate Seoul. Rather than a U.S. presence that still includes ground forces, the primary focus of our military cooperation with Seoul should be on counter-battery systems that could neutralize this threat in the first minutes of a conflict. We should also release Seoul from some of its bilateral commitments to us, allowing it to develop and purchase more advanced weapons systems including missiles and UAVs.
Third, there should be a renewed focus on North Korea's proliferation of nuclear and missile technology that transits through the region on its way to countries such as Iran and Syria. This is not merely a theoretical threat. The Kim regime has proliferated virtually every major weapons technology it has. The Proliferation Security Initiative developed by the Bush administration is useful but has limitations. Key countries in East Asia have not joined, including South Korea. The Obama administration should renew efforts to persuade Seoul to join.
Furthermore, the United States should step up its implementation of UNSCR 1718. Absent U.S. leadership, enforcement will remain nonexistent. Every North Korean ship suspected of carrying illicit cargo should be boarded by the U.S. and allied navies. This should include Japan, which we can encourage to take on new missions that broaden its traditional view of self-defense.
Beijing is highly unlikely to help with these efforts. While there are limits to what can be done about this, the U.S. can dispense with the fantasy that China is a cooperative partner on North Korea. Beijing is concerned about its international image, and a policy of truth-in-advertising could have a beneficial effect.
Next, the U.S. should return to the successful tactic of targeting the finances of the North Korean regime and organizations related to it. This was done with great success early in the Bush administration, but abandoned to entice North Korea to agree to talks and concessions, which then went unfulfilled. Macau's seizure of a relatively small amount of Pyongyang's cash after the U.S. Treasury designated Banco Delta Asia as a primary money laundering concern in 2005 was one of the few measures that got North Korea's attention--until it was reversed at the request of the Bush administration.