An exercise in thinking through what ought to be the ultimate goal of U.S. policy toward Korea requires Americans to invite two handmaidens along for the effort: caution and humility. Those who would set such goals must understand that the United States does not have the power by itself to compel North Korea to reform its behavior, nor to dictate the policy goals of the South Korean government. We have not had that kind of power since 1950, and 15-plus years of North Korean determination to acquire nuclear weapons have not made the task easier. Our effort to compel or persuade the DPRK to eliminate, verifiably, its nuclear weapons and the facilities that produce them has not worked—and without some serious change within North Korea it is unlikely ever to work. U.S. attempts to pressure China to force a shift in Pyongyang will not work either, unless the Chinese determine for reasons of their own to do so. Fiery speeches by American politicians and analysts certainly will not work.
The immovable fact is that nuclear weapons are about the only international asset North Korea has, and its leaders, for now at least, are convinced that serious economic reform—don’t even think about political reform—is a recipe for self-destruction. So neither pressure from without nor change from within looks likely. This poor outlook, however, does not mean that diplomacy is entirely futile or that North Korea will never change. What it means is that we must tend to what some call the gardening phase of U.S. diplomacy: the quiet, not very dramatic work of preparation against the day that conditions shift. It therefore makes good sense to keep close to our allies and friends in Northeast Asia, to think through together what our ultimate goals ought to be, and patiently to probe for signs of new blood, new attitudes and different behavior in the North Korean leadership.
As I see it, the primary long-term goal for the United States in Korea should be a unified, denuclearized and democratic peninsula under Republic of Korea leadership, achieved without war. This goal, certainly its emphasis on unification, aligns with the deepest wishes of most Koreans. That said, this long-term dream could manifest itself as a short-term nightmare, for unification is a prospect that understandably horrifies Northern leaders and makes many Southerners deeply fearful. Nor do China, Japan and Russia have a similar stake in Korean unification, or feel a similar attraction to it. But unification is inevitable, just as achieving it smoothly and knowing its timetable in advance is impossible. In such circumstances one thinks of Talleyrand’s remark that diplomacy is the art of foreseeing the inevitable and expediting it to one’s benefit. In this case, the benefits for the United States encompass the other two aspects of what should be our goal: denuclearization and democracy.
Why is the goal of unification with denuclearization and democratization the right one for U.S. policy toward Korea? To answer that question, we need to pose and discuss a set of others, showing that this goal is both desirable and ultimately possible.
Why is this goal the only practical one? Because North Korea will never be acceptable as a nuclear-weapons state, if only because it cannot sustain itself except by threatening other, often more powerful countries. This is an unacceptably accident-prone posture for any state, a formula for eventual crisis and war. Nuclear material and know-how is also a serious threat if transferred to terrorists. Even if some limitation on nuclear production were negotiated, Pyongyang would not allow sufficient verification. So if North Korea cannot give up its unsafe nukes, and if its leaders believe that they dare not reform, then the regime’s continuation in anything like its current state is unacceptable.
Why would North Korea ever permit unification under Seoul—which would be its end as a state? The DPRK’s leaders are at the center of a dilemma. The leaders of the last and most totalitarian state on the planet know how weak their position is. Only an overriding sense of self-preservation blocks serious reform, and some younger elites will eventually take up the risk of embracing change. Modern media and the realities of the Chinese and South Korean economies and governments are well known to ever more North Koreans, and certainly to North Korean elites. We now have a situation of permanent role-playing by most North Koreans. From fear, they skillfully mouth the nationalist and prideful slogans of the “Great General” (Kim Jong-il) and the ideology of songun (Kim’s “military first” policy). But they know that reality is very different. This is a combustible situation that, despite its perverse appearance of stability, is really kindling waiting for a spark.
Meanwhile, the Kim family and its enablers pretend to be unaware of North Korea’s national poverty amid increasingly prosperous neighbors, all of whom constantly exhort the DPRK to reform and join the world. But the leadership fears that reform will require the presence of outsiders who will fatally undermine their closed system. In particular, exposing the huge lies the regime tells about conditions in South Korea will fundamentally compromise the regime’s internal system of control. So its current leaders and favored successors are determined not to open up. Reversals of even the halfway reforms of a few years ago, along with tightening of contacts with Chinese and South Koreans, reflect this. But Koreans are a justifiably proud people. Their dependence on China for food, fuel and money has got to grate. In short, while the ruling clique will never agree to unification on any terms but their own, the fast-rising, more aware elite of the next generation may well prefer some formula for face-saving reunification over a continued sharp deterioration of basic conditions for themselves and the rest of the country.
Isn’t a unification policy the same as “regime change?” Yes, it will amount to that, in effect. But “regime change” is not and should not be an American declaratory policy, for that kind of language is usually misunderstood as implying some kind of American military attack. That frightens the neighbors, especially the South Koreans, and makes discussions with Pyongyang, much less negotiations, all but impossible. What we should seek is an internal change within North Korea—possibly gradual, but probably requiring some kind of more dramatic “transformative” fracture.
The essential question is how to separate our goal from mere wishful thinking. There can be multiple ways of achieving regime change. North Korea—under Kim Jong-il—has its own goal, which is to be accepted as a nuclear weapons power and afforded whatever it needs in food, fuel and money to perpetuate its bizarre system and to secure a future for its ruthless ruling clique. No American government can support such a goal, not least because it would not provide safety from nuclear blackmail and further proliferation. It would also force a U.S. administration to compromise on human rights and democracy, values that are still meaningful to Americans. No Congress will support such a scheme.
If there is unification, what will happen to Seoul’s alliance with the United States? After unification, and after the costly recovery from backwardness that will have to occur in the former DPRK, the world will behold a strange picture. A unified Korea, with its ethic of learning and hard work, will also have a population (seventy million) comparable to that of Germany. Germany has freely limited its sovereignty within the European Union, but remains Europe’s most significant country and economy. Yet in Asia, a unified Korea would have no Asian Union to join and would still be smaller in population and economic output compared to its great and immediate neighbors—China, Japan and Russia—than Germany is compared to its neighbors. This is essentially why a unified, democratic Korea will see a strategic advantage in a continued alliance with the United States.
It will be a different kind of alliance, however, in several ways. It will be much more equal than it has been; U.S. military personnel in Korea will be fewer, predominantly Air Force personnel, and re-postured away from offensive capabilities, and there need be no bases north of the old demilitarized zone (DMZ).
Having the right goal is important, not least because it allows one to take a rational approach to how one might achieve it. So how should U.S. policy be sequenced and managed to achieve the goal of a unified, denuclearized and democratic Korea?
Interim U.S. goals need to give priority to nuclear weapons and proliferation, but they must not ignore the DPRK’s ballistic missiles, conventional armies and its egregious human rights policies. As we have for 56 years, we can continue to deter the DPRK with conventional forces and reassure allies with nuclear guarantees. But alliance management is just as important as military deterrence. Of crucial importance to this Northeast Asian regional problem are the political and diplomatic views of our Korean and Japanese allies and our Chinese partners in what is de facto a limited, problem-specific entente. South Korea needs to be most prominent of all, particularly in terms of the public face of American diplomacy.
In the near and mid-term, we must achieve containment and deterrence of North Korea using a steadfast and patient process of dialogue and pressure. Dialogue has many forms. Most important will be a multilateral framework, probably the Six-Party Talks, which North Korea hates and many Americans distrust, but which engage the partners and allies in a way that no other forum has come close to replicating. Direct talks by the U.S. government with its North Korean counterparts can also be useful if the political temptation for faux “results” is kept in check. We must avoid agreements with front-end-loaded benefits that are never to be reciprocated.
The “pressure” side of mid-range policy must come from enforcement of UN Security Council sanctions, especially ones regarding shipping, by acting against North Korean financial dealings and criminal enterprises such as illicit drugs and counterfeiting, and by quietly persuading China to apply pressure of its own. China can do the most regarding the DPRK, but is very cautious and will not be pushed, as some Americans demand. It does not favor unification for reasons of obvious geostrategic prudence, but it is not so wedded to opposing it that it cannot be persuaded to accept a unified Korea if the incentives to do so are sufficiently attractive. China can also take low-profile actions well short of supporting unification to constrain inappropriate DPRK activities, as it has already done to some degree.
During the “dialogue and pressure” process, Americans need to understand several core, unchanging realities. The first is that South Korean and Chinese participation will be crucial to any resolution. They will be much more affected politically and economically than the United States, they have deeper knowledge of local realities than we do, and their interests in avoiding war trump ours by orders of magnitude. Further, any serious change on the Korean peninsula must involve Japan, whose resources will be critical in any scenario involving the DPRK joining the world economy. This means, virtually by definition, that unilateral U.S. tactics are likely to fail and could at the same time injure other U.S. interests involving these major states.
A second core reality is that internal matters are central for North Korea, especially now, as a transfer of power from Kim Jong-il to his previously unknown and inexperienced younger son is beginning. The preservation of the power of the ruling elite and the Kim family overwhelms any consideration for the well-being of the North Korean population. Much of the DPRK’s diplomacy seeks to distract us from this core reality, and from its secondary concerns about relations with China and South Korea and the money it hopes to get from Japan. Pyongyang’s insistence on bilateral talks with the United States amounts to a master distraction, working as a buffer against the kinds of threats that truly worry DPRK leaders the most; they know that the real risk is engagement with North Korea’s more prosperous neighbors, especially other Koreans, not with the United States, which is far away and has no realistic military option to back its diplomatic posture. All this helps explain North Korea’s recent defiance of its region and the world with missile and nuclear tests and bellicose statements. Even calls for direct U.S. talks and Bill Clinton’s bizarre August 2009 mission to extract two journalists from the DPRK’s political theater demonstrate the point.
What this means is that the key to reaching our goal is to patiently hold fast to it, and in the meantime do nothing to make the situation worse. The course of the 21st century inside North Korea will create new opportunities for progress. We just need to know what to do with those opportunities once they arise.