How do we want the North Korea problem to end? The Joint Statement adopted in the Six-Party Talks in September 2005 has provided the single most comprehensive scenario to date. If everything envisioned in that statement comes to pass, we will have a world in which:
- North Korea has abandoned its nuclear weapons programs and started to operate light water reactors provided jointly by China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States for peaceful purposes;
- The United States and Japan have normalized relations with North Korea;
- The United States, North Korea, South Korea and China have signed a peace agreement to formally end the Korean War, establishing a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula;
- Japan has started providing a large economic aid package to North Korea, and the country’s reconstruction effort is well underway.
- Kim Jong-il or his son still heads the North Korean government, but he has become a developmentalist authoritarian leader along the lines of South Korean President Park Chung Hee in the 1960s and 1970s.
Other regional states and international financial and development organizations have also begun to help South Korea implement its rehabilitation plan for North Korea;
These scenarios are certainly comprehensive; are they realistic? There are reasons to wonder. Some parties to the negotiations doubt that North Korea will ever entirely dismantle its nuclear weapons, no matter what its government may promise, and no serious person expects this to happen anytime soon. Kim Jong-il, or any successor, knows that his country’s bargaining position would be seriously damaged and the regime’s survivability would be undermined without nuclear weapons. That recognition, in turn, undermines enthusiasm for robust engagement, for fear that front-loaded incentives for North Korea may fail to produce eventual security benefits.
If we think that the current North Korean regime will never dismantle its nuclear weapons completely, but at the same time we refuse to accept a nuclear North Korea, the only solution is ultimately to change the regime. The main problem with this option, however, is an apparent lack of realistic and credible means of accomplishing it. Neither China nor South Korea desires a North Korean regime collapse any time soon, and a decisive, unilateral use of force by the United States is not on the table for both political and military reasons. So a secondary problem with the option of regime change is one of time: It may take many years before views change in Beijing and Seoul. In the meantime, we still need to deter war and manage the consequences of North Korea’s proliferation activities, in themselves no simple tasks.
The real policy question, therefore, is not whether we can achieve the complete denuclearization of North Korea in the near-term, but whether we should incrementalize the logic of the September 2005 Joint Statement: in other words, to encourage North Korea to freeze and gradually dismantle its nuclear weapons, fissile materials and related facilities over an extended period in exchange for a large-scale economic assistance, premised on front-loaded diplomatic normalization and provided over a similarly extended period of time. The argument for doing so rests on a calculation that a robust engagement policy will bring about gradual and peaceful regime transformation, which in turn would result in the complete denuclearization of North Korea.
As things stand, the United States and Japan have affirmed the policy of engagement with North Korea. In June 2009, after North Korea conducted missile and nuclear tests, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, revealed a “four-pronged strategy” toward North Korea that emphasized: close regional consultation and cooperation; UN and national sanctions; defensive measures; and diplomatic engagement to negotiate a path to denuclearization.1 He envisioned the future of Northeast Asia as including “a denuclearized North Korea, a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula to replace the Armistice of 1953 and normal, interlocking relations among all countries, including the DPRK [North Korea] and the United States.”2
Similarly, the newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announced in October his intention to normalize relations with North Korea conditioned on a comprehensive resolution of abduction, nuclear and missile issues.3 If normalization comes about, Japan may provide several tens of billions of dollars to North Korea as part of its effort to reconstruct the country—potentially a game-changer for Korea and the region.
South Korea is on the same track as well. In August, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak proposed a new peace initiative that would provide North Korea with development projects in five major areas: the economy, education, finance, infrastructure and quality of life. This initiative would be activated if North Korea showed its “determination” for denuclearization.4
So how long do the Japanese, South Korean and U.S. governments expect it to take for robust engagement to yield the desired results? The South Korean government has tacitly suggested ten years. President Lee’s “Vision 3000” is designed to help North Korea raise its annual per capita income from the current $500 to $3,000 within a decade, presumably under the assumption that North Korea will not give up nuclear weapons completely until it gains internationally competitive power sources other than nuclear weapons. Neither the U.S. nor Japanese government has pronounced on the matter of timing.
If the logic of robust engagement is correct, then all we have to do to achieve the results of the Joint Statement is be patient, provide appropriate positive and negative incentives and contain North Korean troublemaking in the interim. The normalization of U.S.-North Korea and Japan-North Korea relations could serve the interests of all three countries. North Korea would obtain a large amount of sustained assistance from countries and international organizations such as Japan and the Asian Development Bank, easing its dependence on China. North Korea might also get Russia to play a larger role in the region, particularly in energy development and transportation. Diversifying the sources of support would make North Korea less vulnerable economically and politically.
For the United States and Japan, normalization would enhance the possibility of North Korea’s complete nuclear dismantlement—or achieve at least a nuclear freeze and reduction in the interim. If so, both the United States and Japan could reduce their Korea-related defense expenditures or divert military resources to other needs. They could gain from new economic opportunities resulting from the economic integration of North Korea into the region, and prevent North Korea from getting drawn into a Chinese sphere of influence. In addition, robust engagement would be conducive to the unification of the Korean Peninsula by reducing its eventual cost.
On the other hand, a process of normalizing relations with North Korea might spark disagreements between the United States and Japan, especially with regard to the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens. U.S. foreign policy has always paid more attention to human rights than Japan’s, even with regard to Korea. The U.S. Congress passed the North Korean Human Rights Act two years before its Japanese counterpart did in 2006. The Japanese care mainly about abducted Japanese citizens; the Americans, about broader human rights issues. For the two governments to harmonize on this issue, the Japanese side must broaden its focus, and the American side must not lose sight of how sensitive the abductees issue has become in Japanese politics.
The Joint Statement says nothing about the future of the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance. If we assume for the sake of planning that robust engagement achieves its objective, we must still tackle this question. From a Japanese perspective, and not only a Japanese perspective, U.S. forces should stay in Korea even if all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons are eliminated. There are at least four reasons why they should do so.
First, the U.S.-ROK alliance, together with the U.S.-Japan alliance, would contribute to stability in the region. Second, a post-confrontation U.S.-ROK alliance could play an important role in global security issues. The United States and South Korea have already agreed that U.S. forces in Korea would be used for extra-peninsular missions, and that South Korea would play a larger role in international security affairs, as already demonstrated in Iraq and will be demonstrated in Afghanistan. Third, the continuation of the U.S.-ROK alliance would contribute to the long-term stability of the U.S.-Japan alliance. If U.S. forces in Korea are withdrawn, U.S. forces in Japan would start to appear much more burdensome to the Japanese. The two alliances would have a better chance of survival if they are maintained together. Finally, the U.S.-ROK alliance would provide the hedge against any rise of China as an aggressive power. The U.S.-ROK alliance can help create a world in which, as Princeton University’s Gilbert Rozman has put it, “China stands alone, though respected and unthreatened, and the United States leads a coalition of regional powers as a hedge against possible threats from China.”5
Of course, the assumption underpinning the policy of robust engagement may turn out to be mistaken. There is, after all, logic to the argument that robust engagement, if not handled in a tough and balanced way, could cause North Korea to cling even more resolutely to its nuclear weapons. Indeed, if Pyongyang concludes that nukes and long-range missiles are magnets for diplomatic and economic concessions, it may decide to build many more of them. So what if robust engagement fails?
For the Obama Administration, robust engagement may not remain acceptable politically for very long. If President Obama decides to normalize relations with North Korea well before complete denuclearization, and if the North Koreans reciprocate by shooting off missiles, declaring “no sail zones” and testing more nukes, Obama’s critics will have a field day. He may also lose his Japanese ally: Prime Minister Hatoyama may not wish to risk normalizing relations with North Korea without tangible progress on the abductees issue.
Since failure would not cause a regime change option to appear somehow magically out of thin air, we would most likely fall back on the policy we have followed since 2001: studied neglect coupled with minimum engagement. This may be the most likely scenario, and while it carries risks, those risks don’t represent the worst of all possible worlds. From the North Korean perspective, continued isolation works as long as the Kim Jong-il regime is secure. The United States and South Korea maintain extremely robust deterrent capabilities against North Korea’s use of force, let alone its use of nuclear weapons, and we can assume with relative certainty that North Korean leaders will not use nuclear weapons anyway. They might try to sell nuclear weapons and facilities to other states, as they did to Syria, but the Syrian facilities have been reduced to rubble, and very few countries wish to associate with North Korea in any case. Technological leakage out of North Korea is ultimately a manageable problem. This policy works even better than robust engagement if that, as its advocates claim, results in regime transformation in North Korea.
We may never find out the results, because a wild card may intervene—namely, the sudden collapse of the North Korean regime. We must prepare for such a possibility, of course. At the same time, we cannot base our strategy on a chance occurrence.
A robust engagement policy premised on large-scale economic assistance provided accordingly to the process of gradual denuclearization is the only realistic and credible policy option. It takes a well-coordinated and robust U.S.-Japanese engagement of North Korea and the latter’s reciprocation for the policy to succeed. If it fails, we would fall back on the strategy of robust containment with minimum engagement and wait for Kim Jong-il’s regime to collapse. Whatever endgame we prefer, we are not likely to get it anytime soon.