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How to Control a Nuclear North Korea?

Discussants: David C. Kang, Director, Korean Studies Institute, University of Southern California, and Aaron L. Friedberg, Princeton University
Updated: December 8, 2006


For more than a decade, the United States and North Korea’s neighbors have tried various tactics, from multilateral agreements to sanctions, in attempts to keep the rogue state from becoming nuclear. Six-Party Talks involving the United States, the Koreas, China, Japan, and Russia fell apart a year ago when North Korea walked away from negotiations and refused to abandon its uranium enrichment program. For its part, the United States has rebuffed Pyongyang’s repeated demand for one-on-one talks. North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October, raising the concern level about the Kim Jong-Il regime’s weapons arsenal as well as the possibility that nuclear materials could be spirited out of North Korea. Complicating the issue are the differing stakes for Six-Party Talk members; while the United States and Japan push hard line approaches to try to control Pyongyang’s weapons capabilities, China, South Korea, and Russia worry about the possibility of handling a refugee influx if the Kim regime suddenly falls.

David C. Kang, a Dartmouth College professor of government and coauthor of Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies debates with Aaron L. Friedberg, a Princeton University professor of international affairs and former deputy national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, about the best approaches to influence a nuclear North Korea.

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Aaron L. Friedberg

Most Recent

December 8, 2006

Aaron L. Friedberg

At the start of our exchange David indicated he believed the U.S. should aim “at a minimum” to abolish the North’s nuclear programs and, at best, to achieve “a complete change of regime behavior or even the regime itself.” In the end, however, it would appear that he does not really believe the first goal to be attainable.  In any event, he does not present a plausible strategy for achieving it, other than to suggest that both sides demonstrate “sincerity” by making “genuine and simultaneous moves.” The United States should abandon pressure, encourage engagement and hope that North Korea will reciprocate by dismantling its nuclear capabilities.

There are many words that come to mind when one thinks of Kim Jong-Il, but “sincere” is not among them. No American president could responsibly agree to such a deal without insisting on exhaustive and intrusive inspection measures. (This is especially so because Pyongyang first admitted, but now denies, the existence of a secret uranium-enrichment program operating in parallel to its acknowledged plutonium reprocessing operation.) The likelihood that Kim will accept such measures unless he feels that he has no other choice is vanishingly small. The chance that he will live up to his promises without them is even smaller. Once pressure is lifted Kim will resort to his usual game of bluff and bluster, denial and delay. Only now he will do so from an even stronger position as the clear possessor of nuclear weapons. As hard as the U.S. government has worked to mobilize even modest multilateral measures against the North, it will likely be even harder to get others to reapply pressure once it has been ratcheted back.

The real key to David’s strategy is the hope that expanded economic engagement will transform North Korea and, presumably, sweep Kim onto the garbage heap of history. But how, exactly is this supposed to work? And how long will it take? North Korea’s people have been beaten down and brainwashed for decades. The notion that increased exposure to consumer goods and “capitalist ideas” will suddenly embolden them to rise up and shake off their oppressors is profoundly unrealistic. In his most recent post David describes Kim’s power base as “shrinking day-by-day,” yet earlier he said that Kim was “more firmly in control now than when he took power.” I see no sign that Kim is willing to agree to any moves that might undermine his regime, still less that he has lost the ability or the will to use the most brutal means to crush any hint of opposition.

The stakes in the current stand-off are extraordinarily high and extend far beyond the Korean peninsula. Responding to Kim’s recent actions by showering him with rewards and respect will secure his reign and leave him free to continue accumulating fissile material. Such a policy will also do irreparable damage to what remains of the nonproliferation regime and send precisely the wrong message to Iran’s mullahs, who are watching our every move with intense interest.

David C. Kang

December 7, 2006

David C. Kang

Aaron and I can agree that Kim Jong-il is a good Leninist and that irresolute or divided opponents provide Kim with his best tactical opportunities to pursue survival. Aaron concedes the seeds of failure in the administration's current approach of trying to build pressure on North Korea: For such a strategy to have even a chance to be successful, it will require cooperation from both China and South Korea—states that recognize clearly the implications and costs of regime failure for their own populations. This difference in national strategies is a result of different national interests, and it is probably unrealistic to expect China and South Korea to put U.S. interests above their own.

The October nuclear test has in fact proven that nothing short of a catastrophe in North Korea will bring all the parties together, and then it will be too late for all of us.

To the extent that there is still an opportunity to transform North Korea, it lies in the market forces that are beyond the control of all governments to manipulate, especially including North Korea. Kim Jong Il's recent rear-guard actions (under the name of reform) against the role of the markets show that North Korea is being transformed despite his leadership and that his power base is shrinking day-by-day.

The best remaining option available to Kim Jong-il for extending his regime and distracting his populace from the erosion of his power as markets expand is to ensure that the United States continues to confront the North while also ensuring that such a confrontation does not lead to an attack on Pyongyang. Given the Bush administration's obvious inability to contain North Korea, it should also recognize the limits of its power, and instead expand the forces inside North Korea that may lead to transformation, rather than remaining complicit in the extension of the regime and risking the prospect that economic desperation might bring about the worst result: the possible sale by Kim of nuclear material to the highest bidder.

Aaron L. Friedberg

December 6, 2006

Aaron L. Friedberg

In contrast to David, who argues that efforts to coerce Pyongyang have backfired, I believe that it is precisely the absence of sufficient pressure that has gotten us where we are today. The pattern of Kim Jong-Il’s behavior suggests that he is a good Leninist: when he strikes steel he withdraws. It is only when he encounters mush, when he judges his opponents to be irresolute or divided, that he dares to advance.

While I would not place much reliance on official trade statistics, the figures David cites do point to a significant source of our present difficulties. Instead of joining with us (and Japan) to apply greater pressure, South Korea and China have actually alleviated pressure by increasing their own economic interactions with the North. Some of this activity involves legitimate commercial transactions, but much of it takes the form of aid, not for North Korea’s long-suffering people, but for the government that oppresses them. The key here is to “follow the money,” to keep an eye on the hard currency flows that are Kim Jong-Il’s lifeblood. In recent years Seoul has initiated two large projects in the North that allow it to funnel significant quantities of cash into Kim’s pockets. For its part, Beijing has turned a largely blind eye to the North’s illicit, hard-currency-generating activities that take place on or through its territory.

Despite frequent declarations of unity, we have actually been working at cross-purposes with at least two of the other five parties to the Six-Party Talks. Unfortunately (and ironically in light of the criticisms that have been leveled at it) the Bush administration’s staunch commitment to multilateralism in this case has served to reassure Seoul and Beijing, making it easier for them to continue on their present course without concern over the consequences for relations with Washington.

The Chinese and South Koreans have their reasons for proceeding in this way, including fear of regime collapse and, in the Chinese case, the desire to retain a buffer state and a useful source of leverage over the United States. But unless we can induce them to join with us in squeezing Pyongyang there is virtually no chance of a satisfactory settlement to the current standoff.

Of the North’s two enablers, China is more important and it may also be more pliable. China’s leaders are reportedly outraged that Kim defied their wishes by testing a nuclear device. This suggests they might be coming to grips with the realization that their failure to stop him could endanger their standing in our eyes as a “responsible stakeholder,” raise the risks of an eventual conflict (if Kim proceeds to produce, and perhaps sell, more fissile material) and increase the odds that, no matter what we say, Japan will eventually acquire nuclear weapons. We should be doing nothing to reassure Beijing on any of these counts.

David C. Kang

December 5, 2006

David C. Kang

Aaron is absolutely right that we are farther from a resolution to the nuclear issue than ever before. Relations have grown worse, as has the nuclear situation on the peninsula. Indeed, mistrust and suspicion are so high on each side that I am increasingly pessimistic that any negotiated solution can be found. For these reasons, it is more important than ever to assess whether the current policies are the best path for the United States to pursue.

Where I disagree with Aaron is in the effectiveness of coercion—whether subtly applied or more direct. Observers have been expecting the fall of Kim for years, and yet it appears that he is more firmly in control now then when he took power in 1994, and pressure has only resulted in a response in kind by North Korea. Given that previous pressure has not worked, I'm doubtful that even a considerable increase in pressure would result in any change in North Korean behavior. This is especially true because the inducements the United States has offered are contingent on North Korea first making substantial strides toward denuclearization. The issue of "who goes first" has been a recurrent problem: Both sides want the other to make the first move. I find it highly unlikely that Kim would capitulate under those circumstances.

What does have a chance of success is genuine and simultaneous moves by both sides, as long as both sides are sincere. As I said previously, we all share the same goals of changing North Korea, the only question is how best to achieve those goals. Regarding economic engagement, the question in actuality is not whether Kim will engage in reform—he has already been forced down that path by the devastating economic circumstances of the 1990s, and through China's not so subtle prodding. Although there is heated debate among observers about the extent and seriousness of the halting reforms that North Korea has undertaken, it is fairly clear that North Korea in 2006 is more open than it was a decade ago. South Korean and Chinese trade with North Korea will probably top $2 billion this year, which amounts to between 5 percent and 10 percent of North Korea's GDP [gross domestic product]. If Kim is so afraid of exposing his country to external influences because it will weaken his power, then why don't we do everything possible to expose North Koreans to the outside world?

 Aaron L. Friedberg

December 4, 2006

Aaron L. Friedberg

Any attempt to devise a workable strategy must begin with an assessment of the opponent. Everything we know about North Korea suggests that it is, in effect, an absolute monarchy, ruled by a man who is monstrously indifferent to the welfare of his subjects, manipulative, deceitful, and suspicious to the point of paranoia in his dealings with others, but rational, calculating and with a highly developed instinct for self-preservation.

The notion that Kim Jong-Il will agree to abandon his nuclear programs in exchange for written security guarantees or offers of economic assistance for his people is fanciful. To the contrary, he would likely regard moves to lessen tension and open North Korea to a flood of aid, trade, and outside influences as profoundly threatening.

Kim has devoted decades and untold billions to acquiring nuclear weapons precisely because he believes they will help ensure his safety. He will give them up only if he becomes convinced that the alternative is his own imminent demise.

Despite his carefully cultivated image of aggressiveness, unpredictability, and imperviousness to pressure, Kim has proven in the past to be highly responsive to what he regards as credible threats to his survival. In 1994, when he promised to freeze his nuclear activities, and again in the spring of 2003 when he agreed to enter what would become the Six-Party Talks, Kim apparently believed that he faced a real danger of direct U.S. military action. Today he likely calculates that the risk of attack is close to zero and, for a variety of reasons, he is probably right.

Fortunately there are other, more subtle ways of applying serious pressure, including the use of targeted financial sanctions. A full-scale crackdown on North Korea’s drug smuggling, arms dealing, and counterfeiting, and on the network of banks and front companies that it uses to funnel money back to Pyongyang, would put a crimp in Kim Jong-Il’s lavish lifestyle. More important, it could also threaten his grip on power. Without a steady influx of dollars to pay for foreign-made medicines, cars, watches, and other luxury goods, Kim will find it much harder to buy the continued loyalty of the inner circle of military officers, security personnel, and Communist Party officials on whom his safety depends. 

If it hopes to achieve a satisfactory negotiated settlement to the current standoff, the United States cannot simply choose “engagement” over “coercion;” it must pursue a strategy that combines continued offers of inducements with a considerable increase in coercive pressure. 

 David C. Kang

December 4, 2006

David C. Kang

Almost all observers—whether they favor the broad strategies of engagement or containment—agree on the basic goals of any approach to North Korea: at a minimum the abolition of the North’s nuclear program, at best a complete change of regime behavior or even the regime itself. Their disagreement lies in which strategy best reaches these goals. Furthermore, the basic contours of any deal over North Korea’s nuclear program are well-known: The North abandons its nuclear program in exchange for U.S. security guarantees and normalization of ties. Indeed, this was the core of an “agreement in principle” reached during the Six-Party Talks in 2005.

However, the 2005 “agreement in principle” almost immediately fell victim to issues of implementation: the United States wants the North to make major steps toward dismantling its programs first, while the North wants demonstrated commitment by the United States first. Both sides mistrust each other so much that they are unwilling to make the first move.

Some believe that more pressure is the solution. However, sanctions or other coercive actions (even if China and South Korea go along with these measures) are unlikely to change North Korean behavior. Indeed, the United States needs to decide whether coercion is helping contain and resolve the North Korean nuclear threat, or whether it is in fact exacerbating that threat by prompting a response from North Korea. As is the case with most countries, North Korea has historically met external pressure with pressure of its own. Some believe that coercion will eventually cause the North to capitulate. Unfortunately, past history reveals that this appears unlikely. There is little reason to think that applying even more pressure on North Korea will finally result in a deescalation of tension. 

Alternatively, a strategy of economic engagement that addresses North Korean security concerns while saturating North Korean citizens with capitalist ideas is the best strategy for the United States to pursue: It is transformative, gradual, and peaceful. Capitalism is a powerful force, and when it is unleashed, it is very difficult to turn it back. Give North Koreans a taste of economic freedoms and outside ideas and the next generation will view their own leadership and the world in different terms. Economic transformation is also the most likely strategy to help North Korean citizens: Our quarrel is not with the people of North Korea—they are the victims of a brutal and repressive regime. 

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