Coercing North Korea

By Phil W. Reynolds

This past week, North Korea conducted its most successful ICBM test to date, with its Hwasong-15 missile rocketing to an altitude of nearly 2800 miles.  North Korea says it can now reach all of the continental United States, an assessment shared by scientists in the United States. This latest launch was another step for North Korea towards its goal of achieving regime security.  Critics of the current U.S. administration immediately launched a two pronged critique of the current diplomatic direction practiced since last January.  Suzanne DiMaggio of the New America Foundation, a policy think tank in Washington D.C., and Joel Wit of Johns Hopkins University both agree that diplomacy is the only way forward with North Korea essentially having completed their ICBM program.  Both argue that in low level talks they have attended, North Korean officials made it “quite clear they were open to considering talks without preconditions” and this was a missed opportunity by the Trump administration.

But there is little in the record to indicate that North Korea has any intention of seeking an understanding with Seoul and Washington on a de-nuclearized peninsula.  Wit and Dimaggio admit as much that Pyongyang has unswervingly sought a nuclear force in order to “extract political security as well as economic concessions.” This has been North Korean policy since the mid-1990s:  threatening violence in order to extract political and economic concessions.  Creating a nuclear deterrent provides the lock on the regimes political survival in order to continue its bullying behavior.  Patience with the type of negotiated give and take advocated by Wit and Dimaggio is growing thin, as evidenced by the muscular diplomacy of the Trump administration.  This is not just a view of the myopic and often amateurish current administration.  Former Obama administration secretary of defense Ash Carter has said that he is “not in the camp of people who believe that North Korea has nuclear weapons and if we simply leave them alone it will settle down.”

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Carter is right because the record indicates that North Korea would not be a responsible caretaker of nuclear power, indicating its willingness to use its weapons against those it disagrees with every day.  North Korea does this in spite of the heavy diplomacy that Wit and DiMaggio argues has not happened.  In 1994, the Clinton administration created the Agreed-to Framework in 1994 after North Korea threatened to withdrawal from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).  The North quickly extracted promises of heavy fuel for power plants and the construction of two light water nuclear reactors.  The world responded to the severe famine across North Korea by donating $2 billion in food aid.  Despite this, in 1996, North Korea announced it would no longer observe the 1953 armistice and deployed several units into the de-militarized zone.  Later, a North Korean submarine ran aground in South Korea, sparking a firefight that killed 17 South Korean soldiers.  In 1998, North Korea began building multi-stage, long range missiles, firing the first one over Japan.  In 2002, North and South Korean gun boats exchanged fire, killing twenty North Koreans and four South Koreans.   

In 2004, following some success with former South Korean president Kim dae-Jung’s Sunshine policy, the South financed the Kaesong Industrial Park, located in North Korea.  Over one hundred companies operate there, using some 54,000 North Korean workers.  In 2009, the North restricted access in and out of the complex for several days, and in 2013, closed the complex for four months.  In 2016, the South withdrew from the complex citing the use of hard currency gained there being used to further the North’s missile industry.  The North opened up its Mount Kumgang resort to southern tourists beginning in 1998 and enjoyed increasing popularity until a South Korean was shot and killed in 2008 after wandering off the resort into military zone.  On March 26th, 2010, a North Korean torpedo struck and sank a South Korea Navy Destroyer near the Northern Limit Line, killing 46 sailors.   On 23 November, 2010, North Korean artillery rained dozens of shells on a South Korean island, killing two Marines.   These are not the actions of a responsible great power.  The Six Party talks began in 2003 when North Korea withdrew from the NPT.   The North’s first nuclear test followed in 2006.  The talks collapsed in 2009 as North Korea accelerated its missile program, with additional nuclear tests in 2009, 2013, two in 2016, with the most recent in September 2017.

Witt and Dimaggio claim that “robust diplomacy hasn’t even been attempted” and “we have to explore the only viable alternative left to us, and that’s diplomacy. And we really haven’t done that.”  This is not true.  The Clinton and Bush administrations pursued robust diplomatic measures from the 1990s to the 2010s, and even the Obama administration can be credited with getting the Chinese more involved after 2009.  As far as the Trump administration is concerned, it is practicing perhaps the most robust diplomacy of all, forcing the NK regime to the negotiating table without the empty promises of the past.  President Trump may be playing the game with the kind of long view he has not often been accused of practicing in the past year. Direct talks with Pyongyang would probably go nowhere, as North Korea has insisted on talks with no pre-conditions, and at least the U.S., South Korea, and Japan insisting that the removal of nuclear weapons is the starting point of talks.  What is left is the kind of coercive diplomacy that, while not popular, has been effective in 1962 with the Soviet Union and 1972 with the North Vietnamese.

What remains to be seen is what view prevails across the international community:  The argument that concessions will bring stability, or whether restrictions will choke off the turbulent threats of violence that have heretofore gained North Korea everything it has desired.  However, what the Trump administration’s diplomatic track has raised is the specter that North Korea, having achieved nuclear power yet increasingly isolated by sanctions, will edge closer to the position that it must attack in order to show its resolve.  Regardless, robust diplomacy, whatever strident criticism of Trump demands, has and is occurring.

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Phil W Reynolds

Phil W. Reynolds has a PhD in Political Science, is a visiting scholar at the Center for Futures Studies at the University of Hawaii and is the author of Ouroboros: Understanding the War Machine of Liberalism. His new book Less Than War: Security Assistance and South Vietnam, 1956-1962, is due out in 2021.

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