On Monday, the Democratic Republic of North Korea lobbed five short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, continuing its series of provocative missile launches that began with alleged nuclear tests on January 6.
Many commentators have interpreted recent North Korean aggression as part of a pattern of provocation to attract international attention, a trend that has led some experts to call for outright regime change. Others augur that the regime will collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions, making the Obama administration’s adoption of “strategic patience” the best alternative.
These knee-jerk reactions reflect the Bush-era pattern of slamming the brakes on the possibility of negotiations rather than incrementally managing misbehavior under existing frameworks, only to ignite wildfires of instability (like in Iraq) and return to future bargaining tables with weaker positions (like with North Korea).
They also smack of wishful thinking: predictions of collapse have attended North Korea through two successions of power, famine, and sanctions, and yet the nearly 70-year-old regime still stands. The belief in “collapsism,” as Jong Kun Choi at Yonsei University in Seoul dubs it, leads to strategic postures that demonstrably aggravate North Korean brinkmanship while producing few constructive results.
An alternative interpretation is that, for Kim Jong-un, national prestige is as much about preserving the affluence of his political cadre as it is about the elite status of possessing nuclear weapons, a view supported by his own rhetoric. On this view, he is not flouting international norms despite mounting pressure from all sides—if historical precedent has any relevance, he is likely doing so precisely because he wishes to exchange nuclear concessions with his neighbors and the US for energy, food, and money. This arrangement is exactly what his two predecessors pursued for more than a decade during both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
He doesn’t want nukes to bomb San Francisco. He wants them as bargaining chips.
Critics of engagement point to erratic North Korean behavior and past failed deals as evidence that engaging the regime is inevitably fruitless. Yet Clinton’s 1994 Agreed Framework and Bush’s 2005 Six-Party Talks led to concrete successes, like moratoria on plutonium enrichment and ballistic tests. A top official under Clinton claimed they had been “tantalizingly close” to clinching another deal ending the regime’s missile program.
Arguably, North Korean duplicity is not the only reason those attempts ultimately failed. When the US and its allies drag their feet on upholding their end of deals—like waiting five years to build promised reactors or delaying fuel shipments—it regrettably lends credence to North Korean intransigence. And when the regime exhibits appalling misbehavior, the US has historically succumbed to “shattering” deals instead of building on them.
Now that North Korea has explicitly rescinded its signatures to international nuclear nonproliferation agreements and tested four nuclear weapons to date, the challenge is to determine what constellation of conditions can coax the recalcitrant regime into rejoining the Six-Party Talks. It has vehemently refused to do so until the US drops “preconditions” about the renewal of the regime’s denuclearization commitments of 2005. How do you convince a state to hand over what it perceives to be the basis of its survival?
The latest rounds of sanctions from Congress and the UN Security Council make some ground toward making that precondition a de facto reality. And arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis recently argued in Foreign Policy that minor concessions for North Korea’s space launch program—such as agreements that launched rockets will be non-ballistic, liquid-fueled, and “peaceful”—would provide leverage for a potential nuclear deal and, at the very least, be a better alternative to helplessly watching the regime develop a highly sanctions-resistant missile program.
As Michael O’Hanlon at Brookings suggested recently, maybe it’s time to abandon morally pristine policies that are failing and rethink what is realistic. Today, the climactic international pressure incited by North Korea presents an opportunity for the United States to once again kickstart the “engine of denuclearization” by letting Kim opt for quid pro quo concessions over aggression while saving face both at home and abroad. Let him play his nuclear cards, not by blowing them up, but by surrendering them for gradual economic and political normalization. It is not an ideal approach, but it may be the best.