North Korea’s attack on a South Korean island and its recent disclosure of a new uranium-enrichment facility are just the latest in a series of reminders that U.S. policy toward North Korea has failed. This failure has unfortunately spanned several administrations of both political parties.
In some respects, the Obama administration’s initial policy toward North Korea was an improvement on the second-term Bush administration’s policy of engagement. Following North Korea’s nuclear test in May 2009, the United States worked to obtain a new round of U.N. Security Council sanctions and made clear to Pyongyang that Washington had no interest in rewarding their bad behavior just to get them to the negotiating table.
Unfortunately, the administration, distracted by other issues, put North Korea on the back burner, and North Korea decided to lash out, sinking a South Korean naval ship and now killing two South Korean civilians as well as two soldiers.
It is clear that the Obama administration’s strategy of “strategic patience” has failed. With the deployment of an aircraft carrier to conduct exercises with the South Koreans, they are ramping up the pressure, but unless we and our allies make clear to the North Koreans that there is a price for their intransigence, this unfortunate cycle will be repeated again and again for years to come.
While a direct military response would be too provocative, the administration should consider such steps as: increased efforts to cripple the country’s leadership by targeting the regime’s bank accounts; nonconsensual boarding of North Korean ships suspected of transferring illicit weapons or related technology; and a stern message to China that if Beijing does not rein in Pyongyang, the United States and South Korea will not continue to sit idly by while South Korean citizens are killed.
Perhaps most importantly, the president should make clear that the goal of our North Korea policy is regime change. Congress should pass and the President should sign a North Korean Liberation Act that lays out actions the United States is willing to take to bring about such change in North Korea — for instance, efforts to increase the flow of information into the country and support for refugees who are able to escape.
As long as the current despotic regime remains in place, these incidents will continue to occur and the threat of nuclear-weapons proliferation (either to other rogue regimes or to terrorists) will loom large in the fears of Western policymakers. Forcing the current regime from power is the only way to resolve the security and proliferation challenges posed by Pyongyang.
— Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.