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What exactly are US interests in North Korea?

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In Brief

In March this year, US Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry chaired a hearing on US policy toward North Korea.

After testimony from government and NGO witnesses, Kerry observed, ‘Based on [widely differing testimonials], I get the sense that we are misinterpreting what our interests are, vis-à-vis [North Korea] and how they view us. And if we are, how useful are six party talks?’


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Kerry remains alone among US policy leaders in questioning official descriptions of US interests on Korea.

Those interests remain the subject of profound confusion among government officials, policy specialists and the media. In public debate in the US, the goals of policy are generally described as denuclearisation, containment or regime change. Governments profess to be working toward denuclearisation while having internally decided it to be too tough and substitute for it containment, which relies on far less diplomacy and overall effort. The US interest in protecting or advancing the human rights of the North Korean public is loudly proclaimed, particularly by elected officials, but policy inputs are not designed to make any difference in this area. Meanwhile the policy of engagement begun in earnest by the US in 1994 — and given a critical boost by South Korea in 1998 — is criticized as having been ‘unconditional’ and having no better impact on North Koreans or on regional security than the current containment approach, neither of which is supported by the record.

Mainstream narratives often lack clarity or accuracy. The most glaring omission from official US statements or mainstream analysis is the recognition that a narrow focus on just the nuclear and WMD programs is neither appropriate nor practical. This is one of the clear lessons from the largely successful, coordinated and multilateral engagement of 1994 to 2000. Here, there was recognition that economic development must be at the centre of a successful denuclearisation effort. Agreements made during that period specifically leveraged investments to ensure that large-scale development would be preceded by a measured dismantlement of the DPRK nuclear and missile programs.

The cost of containment, coercion and regime-change efforts have also been absent from political discussion. The cost to US interests in these areas have been extremely high, while the costs to South Korean interests have been arguably far higher. The Six Party Talks framework, while promoted as a better route to denuclearisation, has had the effect of both empowering China as chairman and institutionalising the Chinese preference for slow or static diplomacy. The leverage gained by the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (KEDO) in political, economic and strategic investments has been squandered. If the policy reversals of 2001 in the US and 2008 in the ROK were meant to have any impact on the DPRK nuclear threat, they have been a dismal failure by any measure. The fruits of North Korea’s plutonium program have been used to set off two explosions, and a newly enlarged uranium program now undermines global denuclearisation efforts. Long range missiles have been tested and are presumably being perfected. The human-rights conditions of large sections of the North Korean public have deteriorated.

Critical decisions taken in the first weeks of the Obama administration continue to haunt both policy and process regarding Korea. The Bush administration’s abrupt reversal of strategic and political understandings with North and South Korea in March 2001 has led to peninsular and regional instability and the emergence of North Korea as a nascent nuclear state. In February 2008 South Korea’s newly elected President Lee Myung Bak similarly reversed a decade of broad-based initiatives toward North Korea and aligned ROK policy with the most hard line elements within the Bush administration. Nevertheless, Obama administration statements since 2009 consistently reveal failures to review the diplomatic record. Due to this policy incoherence, three challenges stand in the way of progress.

First, the ability of senior security and diplomatic officials to recalibrate policy and capture some of the US interests at stake is severely constrained by 30 months of bold, implausible statements from the President, cabinet members and various senior officials. The drumbeat of such statements has continued while US interests were described in progressively counterproductive and unrealistic language such as ‘buy the same horse twice’, ‘go down the same road’, and ‘strategic patience’. This language has mainly served to avoid the questions at hand and shift blame for the impasse onto the DPRK and China. Certainly there is blame to be shared, particularly on the part of the North Koreans. But it is clear from the diplomatic history that only US efforts can make the critical difference in shaping the North’s options.

Second, US diplomatic partners in the region have little reason to believe that Washington can sustain any engagement on these issues given the past decade of inconsistent diplomacy. The same can be said for views of the Seoul government. Extreme swings not only in policy but in fundamental strategic understandings, international agreements and political commitments by the United States in 2001 and South Korea in 2008 have created doubt as to the allies’ ability to assess interests or pursue strategic goals.

Third, the widely differing timelines and political needs between the authoritarian and democratic actors needs to be acknowledged. Time is not on the side of either the United States or South Korea. Both the North’s WMD capabilities and the conditions of the DPRK population are cause for action. There are good reasons for the United States to be particularly impatient and proactive, neither of which ensures a weaker negotiating hand. The DPRK and China do not have the kind of political pressures felt by the US and ROK presidents, though they have others. A post-Kim Jong-Il leadership in the North is unlikely to be as confident, flexible, cohesive or invested in improved US-DPRK relations as is the current group. The North’s increasing reliance on China has eroded the leverage of South Korea in ways that will make North-South reconciliation more difficult.

If the current exploratory talks are to go beyond incremental and insufficient gestures, the discussions first between the United States and South Korea, then with China and North Korea, must become more strategic and focus on the overlapping interests of the countries participating in the Six Party Talks.

The more urgent political needs of the United States and South Korea can be met as long as sufficient imagination, planning and leadership are brought to bear on North Korea and China. The kind of robust engagement that will produce results will have a loud chorus of critics in both Seoul and Washington. Yet the case for the current counterproductive posture has always been extremely fragile, and built largely on myths, misunderstandings, and overwrought fears. A government that can perceive its interests and produce a practical plan for action can certainly make a strong argument for that plan. This is true in both the Blue House and the White House, where even small gains from productive diplomacy would stand up well against critics in the political realm.

Stephen Costello is an independent analyst and consultant. He was formerly director of the Korea Program at the Atlantic Council, director of the Kim Dae Jung Peace Foundation USA and Vice President of Gowran International.

This article draws in part on an earlier essay by the author, available here at 38 North.

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