US Policy Options for North Korea, Part VII

[Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI]

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.

About Chirol

Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol (1852 - 1929) was a journalist, prolific author, world historian, and British diplomat. He began his career as a foreign correspondent and later became editor of the London Times. After two decades as a journalist he joined Her Majesty's Foreign Ministry as a diplomat and was subsequently knighted for his distinguished service as a foreign affairs advisor. Additionally, he wrote a dozen books on foreign affairs including The Far Eastern Question (1896), Serbia and the Serbs (1914), The End of the Ottoman Empire (1920) and The Egyptian Problem (1921). He is generally credited with popularizing "Middle East" in reference to the Arabian Peninsula with his book The Middle Eastern Question (1903). "Chirol" is a US citizen and graduate student studying Defense and Strategic Studies and government contractor. As with the historical Chirol, he has traveled to over two dozen countries and lived abroad for many years. Chirol speaks English and German fluently with basic knowledge of manyl of others.
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2 Responses to US Policy Options for North Korea, Part VII

  1. Pingback: » Blog Archive » North Korean Follow up Questions

  2. Jay says:

    An excellent series, Chirol. It’s not often that in reading a piece I think “wait, what about X” only to have the answer a paragraph or two further in such a consistent fashion.

    My issue with option 4 is that it seems to assume that regional players won’t balk and partially negate the strategy. China and the ROK might well be reticent to join an initiative that would bring further famine to the populace of North Korea, each having their own respective reasons ranging from kinship (the ROK) to instability (fears of an influx of refugees and a failed state on their border, perhaps.) Additionally with the uncertainty regarding the DPRK’s current leadership (and perhaps even without such) we could push the country into a condition of such desperation that they revert to military aggression. The fact that a military endeavor against their southern neighbors is likely to be very short due to an inability to sustain a concerted effort might well result in a spastic and all out effort. The supposition that they’ll recognize the way out (abandonment of their nuke prof) assumes that realization won’t be overtaken by desperation. In other words, the point in which they realize they have to submit might come after their grasp on power and sovereignty is too far gone to await the lengthy process involved in repealing sanctions and again receiving aid. A starving people is par for the course, a starving army is rebellion and systemic, political collapse waiting to happen. Maybe I’m over thinking this.

    At any rate, given the uncertainty of the leadership I’m inclined to follow the first Option, that of strategic neglect. It’s a patient approach (as stated by commentator R. Hitchens) and will be maddening and frustrating.
    But I think there’s a caveat not yet discussed, that being the comfort level China has for a rogue nuclear power on it’s border. If I’m China and I’ve built this great economic machine via a “sleeping Tiger” approach (economic expansionism vs militaristic) the last thing I want is economic upheaval in my region in light of an aggressive, nascent nuclear armed “client” state. I think I might take the necessary steps to quash such an occasion, and an aggressive Chinese approach (ie, China, not the US, leading the way) is likely to be less threatening than the alternative. Perhaps the US should continue it’s strategic neglect, at least until we can resolve the leadership of the DPRK. Assuming it will be much the same (as I suspect it will) why not wait the thing out until China has to step forward?
    Apologies for the length in tooth.