In response to press reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died, the White House issued a statement on December 18th that said, “we remain committed to stability on the Korean peninsula, and to the freedom and security of our allies.” So, with the North Korean regime at perhaps its weakest point in decades, the Obama administration’s inclination is to maintain the status quo—or, in their words, “stability.”
This is the Obama administration at its worst—unwilling to use developments, such as changing circumstances on the ground, to the United States’ advantage.
North Korea made its intentions clear after the president’s initial outreach in 2009, testing a long-range missile test just as the president was delivering a major speech on nonproliferation in Prague. A month later, North Korea conducted a nuclear test.
Despite its obsession with engaging rogue regimes, until recently, the administration generally gave North Korea the cold shoulder after its 2009 actions, developing a strategy of "strategic patience" with the North.
While less attention was probably what Pyongyang deserved after years of visits from Bush administration envoys desperate for a deal, the regime eventually lashed out, sinking a South Korean navy warship in March 2010 and shelling a South Korean island in November of the same year.
Shortly before Kim Jong Il’s death, reports emerged that the administration had been conducting secret negotiations with the North Koreans to trade food aid for assurances regarding Pyongyang’s illicit nuclear weapons program as well as a potential moratorium on missile tests. The plans, which would have reversed longstanding U.S. policy to avoid trading humanitarian aid for security concessions, resulted in more meetings between U.S. and North Korean officials, with a State Department official even telling reporters after Kim Jong Il's death that “we’re going to have to keep talking about this.”
But with the transition of power in North Korea to Kim Jong Eun and the generals, these negotiations should be put on hold.
The simple truth of the matter is that the only outcome that will guarantee U.S. and allied interests is regime change in Pyongyang. Unfortunately, successive administrations have been unwilling to state this obvious fact and have instead kicked the problem down the road, attempting to manage the situation rather than solve it.
But Kim Jong Il’s death and the ensuing uncertainty about North Korea's future presents perhaps the best opportunity in decades to tackle the problem head on.
Every economic and diplomatic tool in the U.S. arsenal should be deployed against the regime immediately. Leadership regime assets should be targeted, as should North Korea’s remaining banking links to the outside world. Efforts by the United States and its allies to prevent the proliferation of sensitive materials should be increased. Washington should inform Beijing that we are increasing strategic consultations with our allies South Korea and Japan given the uncertainty in the region and that China will be left out of these conversations unless they support our goal of resolving the North Korea problem once and for all.
Put simply, seeking “stability” is the wrong approach. Promoting instability in North Korea is the only way to ensure a better future for the North Korean people and American interests.