Barring a diplomatic miracle, the missile and nuclear tests carried out by North Korea in April and May have driven a stake into the heart of the denuclearization talks carried out for the last six years.
North Korea trumpets these tests to claim the status of a nuclear power, on a par with the other nuclear-armed nations of the world. This is a status we can never accord the Pyongyang regime. To do so would only reward its defiance of world opinion. It would undermine our alliances with South Korea and Japan, causing them to question the value of the American security umbrella. And it would give further encouragement to those — Iran first and foremost — who are on a similar path and already receive help from North Korea.
The Obama administration has responded to the serial provocations of the Kim Jong Il regime with an appropriate combination of condemnation and caution. It's coordinated closely with our allies in South Korea and Japan and encouraged China and Russia, our other partners in the aborted six-party talks, to oppose illegal activity. The administration, however, is also careful not to rise to the bait of those in Pyongyang who hope to escalate tensions to justify their acts.
The door remains open, as it should be, to a diplomatic solution to denuclearization. It would be foolish, however, not to shape American policy based on the reality that North Korea has relentlessly pursued and demonstrated the capability to explode a primitive nuclear device and potentially to deliver it on the tip of a ballistic missile.
The Bush administration failed to block this program, a fact that was dramatically evident when North Korea carried out it first nuclear test in October 2006. The advent of a new administration in Washington apparently didn’t change North Korea’s strategic logic. For Pyongyang, a demonstrated nuclear capacity provides regime security, deters a possible U.S. military attack and compensates both militarily and politically for its weakness in the ongoing contest for leadership and legitimacy on the Korean peninsula.
The North Korean leadership sits atop a failing state. The economy survives thanks to food, energy and consumer goods from China, but this comes at a price to the regime's system of tight control over its populace. Along with goods come smuggled DVDs of South Korean movies and television shows that reveal how far behind their southern brothers the North has fallen.
The sudden illness of Kim Jong Il last summer triggered a succession crisis that shook the North Korean leadership. The leadership vacuum strengthened the hand of the military, which apparently believes that nuclear weapons are essential to the regime's survival.
If North Korea is determined to hang on to its nuclear weapons, then the United States has little alternative other than to adopt a long-term strategy of deterrence and containment, drawing upon the lessons of the Cold War.A deterrence policy must deal with three principle threats – rising tensions on the Korean peninsula; a regional nuclear arms race; and nuclear proliferation to other states, particularly Iran, or to non-state actors.
We need to strengthen our security guarantee to South Korea and Japan, including our commitment to massive retaliation for any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea. This should be done quietly, without bombast or threat. At the same time, we must expand our counter-proliferation efforts aimed at disrupting North Korean missile and nuclear cooperation with Iran. China's cooperation is essential to that effort.
Economic assistance to North Korea should be halted, with the exception of humanitarian aid. According to recent data, North Korean trade with the outside world leaped last year to a record $3.8 billion. But the vast majority of this – $2.8 billion – is with China, which enjoys a $1.25 billion trade surplus with North Korea. That surplus, given North Korea's inability to borrow money, is an effective Chinese subsidy of the North and its nuclear program.
China has yet to show any willingness to take these kinds of steps, but there's evidence the Chinese leadership is now seriously pondering whether it's time to put its broader role as a world power above its ties to the Pyongyang regime.
Containment, as its Cold War architects insisted, does not rule out diplomatic negotiation, nor should it limit other forms of engagement, from cultural exchanges to humanitarian aid. The on-the-ground presence of aid workers and even businessmen can accelerate change, prying open police state controls and encouraging, as it did in the Soviet Union, real reform.
Unfortunately, North Korea has far from exhausted its potential for escalation. It already has issued military threats against South Korea. Deterrence remains crucial, but we need to remember that time is not on the side of the North Korean regime. With patience, as the West demonstrated in the Cold War, the solution to this problem may come with the transformation of the regime itself.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Daniel Sneider is the Associate Director for Research of Stanford University's Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and a former foreign correspondent who covered Korea for The Christian Science Monitor and the San Jose Mercury News.