As the United States and South Korea strengthen their defenses amid blood-curdling threats from a North Korea that continues to strengthen its nuclear and missile capability, the truth has to be faced: U.S. policy toward North Korea is not working.
Every time Pyongyang has faced pressure, sanctions and coercion — as opposed to a U.S. willingness to engage — it has responded in precisely the same way: by doing the opposite of whatever the heightened pressure was designed to achieve.
In 2005, Washington imposed financial sanctions on the Macau-based Banco Delta Asia, where Pyongyang held dozens of accounts. After its calls for bilateral talks and proposals to find a way to resolve the issue were rebuffed, the North staged a series of missile tests in July 2006. When the United States then pushed through a tough resolution at the U.N. Security Council, Kim Jong Il ordered the country’s first nuclear test.
When North Korea launched a missile in the spring of 2009, Washington again pushed for U.N. sanctions. Barely a month after that resolution passed, Pyongyang staged its second nuclear test. As the Obama administration followed a policy of “strategic patience” and minimal diplomatic movement, Pyongyang then revealed that it had acquired a uranium enrichment capability to go along with its plutonium bomb program.
Now, the pattern has repeated itself. The North’s December missile test led to a condemnation from the U.N. Security Council. That prompted Pyongyang to conduct its third nuclear test in February, which in turn produced even tougher U.N.-mandated sanctions. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are at their highest level in years.
There is no question that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs pose a serious threat. They could produce weapons that could be used in a new Korean conflict or proliferated to rogue states or terrorist groups.
And there is, of course, no easy solution. The United States and its allies are not going to initiate a war to eliminate these programs. But no evidence suggests that coercion leads North Korea to modify its behavior, and even stepped-up Chinese support for sanctions is unlikely to force positive changes in Pyongyang. Moreover, despite continuing speculation, there are few signs that the regime is headed toward collapse.
All this leaves the one approach that the Obama administration has adamantly resisted: engagement at the highest levels. It’s been reported that the White House secretly sent envoys to Pyongyang last year. But dialogue with mid-level diplomats contains a built-in obstacle to success, because in the North Korean system the top leader makes all the key decisions.
President Obama declared in his second inaugural address, “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naive about the dangers we face but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” Before things get even worse, it is time to try that approach with North Korea, by appointing a high-level envoy with the stature and credibility to ensure that he or she would be able to meet with Kim Jong Un to explore possibilities of reversing the recent downward spiral.
North Korea is in transition. As he has consolidated power, Kim has shown a more “populist” political style, signaled an interest in improving the North’s economy and hinted at greater receptivity to international contact. His much-derided recent embrace of basketball player Dennis Rodman was broadcast repeatedly on North Korean television — a signal to his people that not all Americans are enemies.
At the same time, Kim has pursued his nuclear and missile ambitions and made threats even more extreme than those associated with his father. So far, however, the North’s bark has been worse than its bite. And he does appear interested in diplomatic contact with the United States. For all of Rodman’s quirks, it is significant that the key message he brought back to the States was that Kim wants to talk with Obama.
The Obama administration has shown no interest in such a conversation. But only face-to-face discussions with Kim Jong Un will enable the United States to judge whether there is any hope of dialogue and revived diplomacy.
The alternatives are so bleak — at a minimum, continued tension; at worst, a new Korean conflict or a frightening wave of proliferation — that it is worth Obama taking the political risk to test Kim’s intentions.
In 1950, as Cold War tensions increased, Winston Churchill proposed talks with the Soviet Union at “the highest level . . . to bridge the gulf between the two worlds, so that each can live their life, if not in friendship, at least without the hatreds of the Cold War. . . . It is not easy to see how things could be worsened by a parley at the summit.” Churchill was no appeaser. Obama could do worse than follow his advice and send a high-level envoy to Pyongyang.
Mike Chinoy is a senior fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California and the author of Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis. He has visited North Korea 15 times.