U.S. needs a winning North Korea strategy

The next U.S. president must embrace a North Korea strategy that denies the rogue atomic-tipped missiles while avoiding a repetition of our recent policy fiascos.

In February, North Korea agreed to freeze nuclear and missile programs in exchange for food aid.  But last Friday, Pyongyang scuttled that agreement by announcing plans to launch a satellite atop a three-stage missile designed to eventually carry nuclear weapons. 

Of course, North Korea’s satellite launch plan is a ruse to test a long-range missile, a violation of its international obligations. Everyone knows Pyongyang will never abandon its nuclear and missile programs because they are the regime’s means for blackmail and regime survival.

North Korea can blackmail because it is unpredictably dangerous. It fields a massive 1.2 million man army, sells weapons to unsavory nations like Iran and boasts a nuclear arsenal that is making undeniable progress toward a deliverable atomic weapon.  Former U.S. Ddefense Secretary Robert Gates said in 2011 North Korea is becoming a “direct” threat to the U.S. 

America’s strategy regarding the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which dates back to the 1953 Korean War armistice, is to deter an attack on South Korea and delegitimize the North Korean government.  That strategy began to shift in the 1990s with the advent of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.

But America’s strategy has failed to arrest the hermit kingdom’s dangerous circular blackmail trap as illustrated by the latest satellite launch announcement.   That “trap” begins with the regime’s promise to freeze its military programs in exchange for concessions and then violates the agreement, threatens war in response to the international community’s inevitable sanctions and then returns to negotiations for more concessions. 

Consider the history of North Korea’s “circular blackmail trap.”

The U.S. learned about North Korea’s nuclear program in 1982.  But the first indication Pyongyang might be seeking an atomic weapon wasn’t acknowledged until 1991.  That year a declassified State Department document, “North Korean Nuclear Program,” opined that North Korea could have a nuclear weapon by the mid-1990s.

That news led to the first American effort to stop the country’s nuclear weapons program.  The Clinton administration negotiated the Agreed Framework of 1994 by which Pyongyang promised to freeze its reactors in exchange for light-water reactors and other economic/energy benefits.  But by 1999 another declassified government report stated “There is significant evidence that undeclared nuclear weapons development activity continues [in North Korea].”

In 2002 the U.S. accused North Korea of violating the “freeze” and subsequently Pyongyang abandoned the 1994 Agreed Framework and in 2003 withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Later that year the so-called Six-Party talks began, which led to a 2005 North Korean agreement to abandon nuclear weapons once again in exchange for economic and security guarantees.

A year later North Korea scuttled the Six-Party agreement by conducting a test of a nuclear explosive device. The United Nations responded to the test by adopting Resolution 1718 demanding Pyongyang abandon nuclear weapons and return to the NPT. 

By early 2007, North Korea agreed once again to disable all nuclear facilities in exchange for more economic, energy and humanitarian assistance. But within a year, it tested a nuclear reactor and barred nuclear inspectors. 

Then in 2009, North Korea continued its provocative actions with the launch of an intercontinental-capable Taepodong-2 rocket and a second nuclear device test.  These actions earned another UN condemnation and Pyongyang responded by again expelling the nuclear inspectors and abandoning the Six-Party talks.

The following year was noteworthy for three provocative actions. North Korea sank the South Korean ship the Cheonon, unveiled its secret uranium enrichment capability to an American delegation, a taunting move, and shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010.

North Korea’s actions must be understood within the context of its motivation: regime survival. 

Regime survival is the motivation of the rogue’s newest dictator, Kim Jong-Un who took over from his father, Kim Jong-Il, who died in December. Kim’s actions are focused on building credibility for his fledgling rule, which explains the satellite launch fiasco and serves several important functions for the young dictator.

The launch will be part of events planned to commemorate founder Kim Il-Sung’s birthday on April 15th, the young Kim’s grandfather and a national icon with whom he needs to identify.  It can also be seen as an act of brinkmanship to boost the new leader’s rule, reinforce unity at home, showcase the North’s military capability and pressure Washington to increase aid in exchange for renewed talks, especially now that President Obama is vulnerable in a reelection battle and has his hands full with the Iran crisis. 

The timing of the launch announcement (March 16) also raises Pyongyang’s profile before the gathering of world leaders in Seoul on March 26 to discuss nuclear terrorism.  Pyongyang accused Seoul of hosting the summit to criticize North Korea, another means to reinforce unity at home by portraying the world against North Korea.

What should be America’s North Korea strategy? Obviously sanctions won’t persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear and missile programs, and neither will diplomacy.  There is always the unlikely chance the regime will implode, or that China will use its considerable influence to restrain the rogue’s threatening actions.

There is also the option of learning to live with a nuclear North Korea, but that likely means a regional arms race, greater defense spending for America to counter an Asian cold war threat and living with a credible nuclear threat to our homeland plus more blackmail payments. 

Alternatively, America can get tough.  We can interdict suspect shipments of illicit weapons to places like Iran, bomb nuclear sites North Korea refuses to shutter, shoot down North Korean missiles, and target regime leaders like President Ronald Reagan did Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 1986.  Pyongyang understands force, but it may launch a war in response, a risk we take.

America needs a strategy that denies North Korea atomic-tipped weapons,and getting tough might be the only viable course of action.  The status quo is unacceptable.