The Obama administration is revealing a dangerous naivete regarding North Korea. In response to its threat to attack the United States and its allies, senior administration officials outlined plans for a limited “response in kind.” It is hard to conceive of a more misplaced message to send to Pyongyang at this uncertain moment.
To a North Korean regime with a record of indifference toward the welfare of its own people, the U.S. promise of only a limited response to any military provocation is tantamount to an invitation for Pyongyang to strike South Korea, Japan or even the United States — knowing that it would face not overwhelming retaliation but rather a modest and manageable tit for tat. With South Korea’s vibrant, free-market economy so heavily dependent on foreign trade, it is hard to imagine a policy statement from Washington that could be more destabilizing to Seoul. Is there any doubt which nation, North Korea or South Korea, stands to benefit more from a series of repeated but relatively low-level military operations: a missile launch, the downing of a plane or ship, maybe even a small incursion through the demilitarized zone? Rather than use U.S. military power to deter North Korea from taking any such actions, the White House has ceded initiative and escalatory dominance to Pyongyang.
The first challenge in statecraft is to understand the perspective of all the nations with relevant interests. Here, the major challenge to U.S. strategy toward North Korea is to recognize the role of China. President Obama is fond of saying that North Korea’s threats and belligerence “only deepen its isolation.” Except they don’t. Despite perennial assertions that China’s leadership is tiring of the conduct of its client state, the facts tell a different story — one in which North Korea can continue to count on its most important ally. At the end of the day, China prefers a North Korean buffer, even with the Kim family in charge, to any alternative.
Economic activity between the two countries is flourishing. Chinese investment in North Korea’s mining sector has grown rapidly: Mineral exports to China nearly quadrupled from 2008 to 2011. Trade between the two countries more than doubled during that period, possibly reaching $5 billion annually. This is a massive boon for North Korea’s economy, which the CIA estimates at only $28 billion to $40 billion total. Some economists believe that North Korea began running a trade surplus in 2011.
The trend continued even after North Korea’s nuclear test in February — something that supposedly upset Beijing. South Korean media reported last month on major new Chinese investment in infrastructure in the border region meant to bolster trade with North Korea. This includes plans to build five new bridges to North Korea.
The reality is that Pyongyang is not isolated from the one economic and security partner that matters to it: China. It paid no price for sinking a South Korean ship and shelling a South Korean island in 2010. And thanks to recent White House ruminations, the Kim regime can conclude that any allied response to whatever aggression it may be pondering would be limited. Furthermore, there is no evidence that North Korea is facing economic or political turmoil — something Washington experts from both parties have wrongly presumed was inevitable and obviated the need for a serious policy to pressure the regime to change its conduct.
Washington and its allies must understand that resilient nuclear threats from states such as North Korea seldom lend themselves to quick fixes or grand bargains. Instead, those allies should combine military deterrence and human rights advocacy as part of a long-term solution. From a military perspective, making clear before any shots are fired that the United States will respond proportionally only highlights the U.S. reluctance to offer our allies in South Korea and Japan the full benefit of our security umbrella.
But a focus on human rights is also necessary. Washington and its allies would be well served to reprise the emphasis they placed on human rights and nonviolent political transition during the final decade of the Cold War. While North Korea is hardly fertile ground for a dissent movement, history shows that even in such tightly controlled environments, some will one day form a political opposition. But they will need help.
A limited but perceptible increase in independent media focused on North Korea — especially defector-run radio stations — provides such an opportunity. Czeslaw Bielecki, a dissident from an earlier era of oppression in communist Poland, wrote of the importance of free media in his how-to manual, “The Little Conspirator.” “Newspapers do not only spread ideas; for the underground, they are the best source of information, money and materials. An underground press serves as a training ground, it schools novices in techniques” of organization, he noted. “It teaches them how to cope with, and overcome fear.” The tools of media and the tradecraft of dissent were different then — but not so much that a modern effort could not be arranged with modest resources.
Thus did a Poland under communist martial law eventually become free — especially with the tailwind of nearly united political support from the free world combined with convincing military deterrence. The same can happen in North Korea in our time.
Jay Lefkowitz was President George W. Bush’s special envoy for North Korean human rights issues. Christian Whiton was deputy envoy and is the author of the forthcoming book Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.