American Options Limited in Korea


Earlier today, North Korea killed two ROK marines and injured at least 16 others in an artillery barrage near the Yellow Sea’s Northern Limit Line.  South Korea has promised "stern, manifold retaliation" if it happens again. Meanwhile, the U.S. and others are still absorbing the implications of new information about advancements in North Korea’s nuclear program.

North Korea’s new provocations indicate it is attempting to coerce the U.S. and others to return to Six Party Talks (6PT). North Korea has effectively constrained America’s ability to pursue Korean denuclearization.

Yet cool heads must prevail. If America does not want proliferation, nuclearization, or escalation to full-scale war, it has no palatable option but no-holds-barred diplomacy.

Why now?
North Korea’s nuclear program is more advanced than analysts previously thought. The Yongbyon facility with its 1000s of HEU centrifuges is highly sophisticated and likely was built over several years, unbeknownst to China, America, Russia, Japan, or South Korea intelligence despite heavy surveillance. Sig Hecker, the Stanford nuclear scientist who verified its operability last week, judges the centrifuges are for power production only. The Obama Administration infers nefarious intent. A controversial UN report before the Security Council documents evidence North Korea may have supplied banned nuclear technology to Syria, Myanmar, and Iran. There are satellite images depicting what may be DPRK preparations for a third nuclear test.  

North Korea often uses violence, or its threat, as a means of coercive diplomacy, often expressed prior to public announcement of its desire to return to negotiations. Publically revealing new nuclear advances and lashing out at South Korea are very popular tactics. If the US returns to the table, this will likely play inside North Korea as a huge success – a triumph of their will, which may or may not have support Kim Jong-Un’s power consolidation efforts or Kim Jong-Il’s final legacy. If American does not return, the nuclearization and shelling the ROK still play as big DPRK successes. Future provocations will as well.

Obama says the US will not return to negotiations until North Korea demonstrates adherence to previously signed agreements. As Ambassador Jack Pritchard says, the U.S. should not attempt to buy the same horse thrice. Yet North Korea openly defies those agreements and all containment efforts though.

What Is to Be Done?

Obama has few, if any, options besides diplomacy. A CRS report from last month indicates UN sanctions are ineffective, in part because China won’t stop supporting the DPRK in the interest of maintaining border stability, but also in part because sanctions generally are harder to execute than to legislate. Military options are off the table completely.

Our non-proliferation objectives are effectively held in leash by the North. All of our efforts are designed to contain North Korea without addressing the root causes of that threat: North Korea’s fundamental fear of the U.S., South Korea, and Japan. The U.S. always expects North Korea to denuclearize first, and only after that will we talk about new Agreed Frameworks, peace negotiations, political normalization, economic ties, etc. But for the North, which views itself as under constant threat of war from the U.S. and its allies, this disarmament of its only effective threat deterrent is unconscionable. Without acting to address the fundamental underpinnings of North Korea’s insecurity, we can neither expect nor force North Korea to denuclearize.

In short, the time has not yet come for sweeping measures. To borrow a metaphor from China’s Yi Jing, America now is as the wind in the sky. It can drive the clouds together, yet, being nothing but air and having no solid form, it cannot make them rain. We can reconvene the 6PT and retool our diplomatic approach to the North, but we cannot force North Korea to denuclearize, and we have no options for containment left at our disposal. We must continue pursuing future denuclearization, but there are still obstacles in the way, and for now we can merely take preparatory measures, such as those the Atlantic Council outlined in its 2007 working group report on this subject.

America’s only option is to exercise the taming power of the small. Only through incremental, small means of diplomacy and refining external policy positions can America keep North Korea in check. To attain future denuclearization, right now we need firm determination within and gentleness and adaptability without in our relations with North Korea. Violence and coercion are the ploys of inferior persons.

Coordinating responses among ourselves and North Korea’s neighbors is important, but we have no recourse except to restart negotiations and reinvigorate multilateral dialogue. This will restrain and impede the DPRK’s defiant outbursts. We must be willing at least to tacitly consider that "denuclearization first" may never have been possible, but ultimate, future denuclearization is not out of the question if we bide our time and effectively address North Korean insecurity and instability. These small measures can restrain, tame, and impede the defiant will of tyrannical North Korea.

We also should find answers to several questions:

  • What cost are we willing to pay before we swallow our pride and return to multilateral dialogue? North Korea had help building these centrifuges under the radar and at such speed. What price did they pay for assistance and to whom? Are power-producing centrifuges enough, or are we willing to wait until Syria, Iran, Myanmar, and possibly others have the bomb? 
  • Is it that China views North Korean stability as a higher priority than denuclearization, or is it that China views DPRK stability as a means to future denuclearization? We must not forget we invented "peaceful evolution" through economic integration, or that it worked on China.
  • What is so unacceptable about increasing North Korean security and stability in order to achieve denuclearization? Both would entail increasing North Korean dependence on the Other Five Parties, which means long-term increases in leverage.

We may never be able to buy North Korea’s denuclearization, but we still have to try.

Patrick deGategno is the Associate Director of the Asia Program, Atlantic Council. Photo credit: AP Photo.

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