North Korea’s efforts to legitimize itself as a nuclear weapons state and its cut-off of access to the Kaesong Industrial Complex have diminished prospects for peaceful coexistence on the Korean peninsula. American and South Korean tolerance of North Korean provocations has waned, and it is increasingly clear that strategic patience in dealing with North Korea may only result in increasingly unattractive options. When they meet today, Presidents Park and Obama must pursue an even more closely coordinated effort to change the North Korean leadership’s calculus sooner rather than later or North Korea’s capacity to impose higher costs and burdens on the allies will only grow.
Kim Jong-un’s pride in North Korea’s nuclear deterrent and satellite launch capabilities has fed the perception in Pyongyang that North Korea can enhance its deterrent and gain respect through intimidation of the United States and South Korea. Far from driving up the price that North Korea might demand for keeping the peace, Kim Jong-un has priced the nuclear program out of the market and raised the risk premium on inter-Korean economic cooperation to unacceptable levels. No negotiation with the United States will yield acceptance of a nuclear North Korea, and North Korea’s abandonment of Kaesong has wiped away a decade of South Korean investment in a peaceful and stable modus vivendi with the North.
North Korea has overplayed its hand and faces either a humiliating climb down or the prospect of losing it all. But either scenario will impose unwanted costs on North Korea’s neighbors. Kim’s neighbors will have to save his face as the cost of avoiding immediate conflict. But the cost of buying time will include further provocations from an insecure North Korean leadership whose strategy for survival imposes instability on its neighbors.
Despite the Korean Workers Party’s recent commitment to the dual priorities of nuclear and economic development, North Korea is in a cul de sac. It insists on pursuing nuclear development as a right of self-defense in the face of international condemnation, but its expanding threat capacity undermines the likelihood that nuclear North Korean leaders can ever be accepted in the international community.
At present, there is no intersection of interests between the positions of North Korea and the United States that can justify a return to negotiations. North Korea demands the end of U.S. hostility toward the North as a prerequisite for denuclearization, while the United States seeks North Korea’s denuclearization in return for an improvement of relations based on the 2005 six party joint statement. The loss of Kaesong represents a lost decade of sunk costs in infrastructure inside North Korea, returning the inter-Korean relationship to square one. New South Korean investment cannot continue until economic governance trumps the whims of North Korea’s political leaders as the guiding principle for managing North Korea’s external relations.
A combined U.S.-South Korea vision should urgently insist that North Korea must change, but the allies have not yet developed a detailed joint strategy for bringing about those changes. Diplomatic engagement with North Korea should be a part of the strategy, but diplomacy should not enable North Korea to buy time, lead to acceptance of a nuclear North Korea, or extend its disruptive influence in the region.
The United States and South Korea should reach out to China based on the understanding that there is a time limit for North Korea to come back to negotiations and that denuclearization must be a main agenda for any new dialogue, recognizing that China is vested in the status quo. Only by trying to bring China along will it be possible to prove that peaceful options for transforming North Korea have been exhausted.
The two presidents should also deepen coordination designed to prepare for the possibility that there is no pathway to peaceful co-existence under the North Korean leadership. This approach would involve a joint examination of the most severe potential costs of confrontation with North Korea and develop strategies to minimize the costs if North Korea continues down the wrong path.
In the past, the prospective costs of any conflict have inhibited a realistic U.S.-ROK discussion of how to achieve a desirable end state on the Korean peninsula, and negotiations have inspired false hopes for a peaceful pathway to Korean reunification. But North Korea’s aspirations to develop a nuclear strike capacity and the closure of Kaesong have shattered these illusions. Presidents Obama and Park must show decisive and coordinated leadership to contain North Korea’s reckless threats.