This is the final post in a seven part series of mine looking at U.S. policy options for North Korea.
North Korea is one of the most difficult cases of nuclear proliferation. It is extremely isolated with a history of unpredictability, secrecy and aggression. On top of this, the motivations behind its long pursuit of nuclear weapons are murky. Based on past behavior and statements from North Korea, they include security from external threats, both domestic and international legitimacy, civilian energy and use as a bargaining chip. In order to formulate policy towards the DPRK, decision makers must realize that North Korea is a nuclear power, and will be very difficult to disarm. Military options would be too costly, policies of bribing and accommodating the DPRK have failed and Pyongyang’s history of proliferating WMD and missile technology make it a very dangerous threat to U.S. security.
Libya’s voluntary disarmament in 2003 has proven that long term isolation and negotiation can ultimately lead a state to disarm. However, given the amount of effort and time that has gone into negotiating with North Korea, it is extremely difficult to assess the utility of strategic neglect (Option 1) since it could take months, years or decades before conditions are right. Nevertheless, it would be a viable short term strategy given that the current Six Party Talks are ongoing and hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue for the near future. This would achieve the objectives of preventing attack and maintaining our alliances and the NPT. But uncertainty about the time frame means it would not be a good long term option.
Threating to shift the balance of power by informing Pyongyang that the U.S. would no longer object to a nuclear South Korea and Japan (Option 2) may provide the shock and impetus towards serious negotiations and some form of settlement. It would be a dramatic departure from past American policy and force Pyongyang to reconsider whether its means are achieving the intended ends. It would also aim to shock South Korea and Japan out of their mindsets of appeasement and China into realizing that its current status quo policy is untenable in the long run. The risk of this policy is that it could seriously damage the NPT, especially were it to not result in successful negotiations and disarmament. This could also happen were the information to be leaked that the United States was allowing the ROK and Japan to go nuclear. Allies and enemies may also interpret it as a desperate measure indicative of declining U.S. power. It is more of a gamble than the other options.
Comprehensive negotiations (Option 3) and containment and deterrence (Option 4) both use a much broader mix of statecraft to achieve U.S. objectives yet also involve longer and uncertain time frames to do so. Comprehensive talks with the DPRK contains elements of option 1 as it involves a longer time frame and the ability to intentionally prolong talks. However, all sides could engage in that, drawing out or even killing the negotiations. Nevertheless it would represent the broadest and most in-depth attempt to end North Korea’s nuclear program and resolve problems with its neighbors and the United States, giving it a large degree of flexibility compared to options 1 and 2. Yet, given the North’s negotiation history, they may be just as likely to use their nuclear program to accomplish their goals without making the promised concessions, thus leaving a high degree of uncertainty of success.
Finally, containment and deterrence would send a clear message to North Korea and the world of the United States’ commitment to ending the DPRK’s nuclear program, dedication to regional security and the futility of blackmail. It’s use of wide-ranging instruments of statecraft make it highly flexible and adjustable to changing conditions. But while it could force North Korea into future negotiations and disarmament, it could also antagonize them, making compromise less likely. Regarding U.S. objectives, it provides no clear time frame for eliminating the nuclear or proliferation threats while at the same time minimizing them more than the other three options. The risk of conflict is not significant but still greater than with the others due mainly to the possibilities of miscommunication or desperate North Korean actions. The strategy’s effect on our allies and others in the region could also be positive or negative.
Option 4, a policy of containment and deterrence, is recommended due to its accomplishing the most U.S. objectives with the least amount of risk.