Behold the unique power of North Korea: A small, hopelessly isolated prison-state that suffers from perpetual food shortages, crushing poverty, Zimbabwe-style inflation, and a cartoonishly severe electricity problem, is nonetheless able to summon the rapt attention of the United States whenever it chooses. Pyongyang’s latest act of headline-grabbing belligerence was an unprovoked artillery assault on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, which is home to both a military base and a quiet fishing community. The attack killed four South Koreans, including two civilians. It came less than a week after the world learned of a new North Korean uranium-enrichment facility.
Thus far, the responses from Washington and Beijing have been predictable. The U.S. has fiercely condemned the atrocity and is now conducting massive naval exercises with South Korea in the Yellow Sea; meanwhile, American officials are pushing to beef up sanctions against the North. China, by contrast, is refusing explicitly to blame Pyongyang for the incident and is urging a resumption of the futile six-party talks that collapsed in April 2009 when North Korea announced it would no longer attend the negotiations.
This all sounds grimly familiar. Once again, Pyongyang has resorted to barbarism in hopes of intimidating its neighbors and extracting economic concessions from the West. Once again, the U.S. is being urged to “do something” about the Korean threat. Once again, China is resisting further sanctions against its client state and is counseling restraint on all sides. And once again, America’s practical options are depressingly scarce.
Some conservatives have argued that the Yeonpyeong attack was a direct response to U.S. “weakness.” In fact, the Obama administration has been relatively tough on Pyongyang — much tougher than the Bush administration was during its final two years, when economic sanctions were loosened and North Korea was removed from the State Department’s list of terror sponsors. Go back and read secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s remarks at the July 2009 ASEAN Regional Forum in Thailand. A hawkish former Bush official describes that speech as “the best statement on North Korea strategy in the past 20 years.” The Obama team — led by Clinton, secretary of defense Robert Gates, and State Department Asia hand Kurt Campbell — has bolstered America’s alliance with South Korea and championed muscular sanctions aimed at squeezing Pyongyang’s finances. Just a few days before the Yeonpyeong attack, the U.S. Treasury Department froze the assets of Korea Daesong Bank and Korea Daesong General Trading Corporation, both of which have links to the North Korean government.
We applaud the new sanctions and encourage the Obama administration to strangle North Korea’s cashflows however possible. But we are under no illusion that sanctions will topple the dictatorship. For that matter, neither rigid sanctions nor generous concessions are likely to spur a real change in North Korea’s strategic thinking. Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, after the Bush administration had started cutting it off from the world financial system with its ruling on $25 million in accounts at Banco Delta Asia. The eventual release of those assets — a reward for hollow North Korean disarmament promises — was followed by the Pyongyang’s second nuclear test, in May 2009. The lesson? Americans need to stop treating Pyongyang’s behavior as a function of U.S. policy.
The Kim Jong Il regime is not your typical aggressive autocracy. It is a cult-like gangster government that espouses a racist, totalitarian ideology and believes that nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of its existence. Having ruined North Korea’s economy, it survives through Chinese aid and a host of illicit enterprises, such as drug trafficking, weapons proliferation, and counterfeiting. (The latest WikiLeaks document dump offers new evidence of Pyongyang’s missile sales to Iran.) It wants to bully the U.S. and its allies into providing economic assistance and accepting its status as a nuclear power.
Short of launching a military strike, there is nothing that the Obama administration can do to force immediate regime change in Pyongyang. America does not possess a silver bullet for solving the problem. At this point, sanctions should not be viewed as an instrument for deposing the Kim regime or “ending” its nuclear program. Instead, they should be viewed as a means of slowing the nuclear program, limiting North Korea’s ability to proliferate, and maximizing America’s (minimal) leverage over the ruling government, which is currently in the midst of a leadership transition, with 27-year-old Kim Jong Un (the son of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il and grandson of “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994) being groomed for the top job.
In addition to boosting sanctions, the U.S. should also re-list North Korea as a terror sponsor, reject a new round of six-party talks (which would be a pointless distraction at best), and inform China that its continued support for Pyongyang is forcing the U.S. to strengthen its partnerships with the Japanese, the South Koreans, and others. The ongoing naval exercises in the Yellow Sea should become a permanent feature of the East Asian security landscape, and we should reject China’s demand that those exercises take place more than 200 miles from its coast. We must convince Pyongyang and Beijing that the U.S. response to North Korean bellicosity will no longer consist of temporary measures.
As many analysts have noted, North Korea won’t change its approach to the outside world until China changes its approach to North Korea. Without Chinese food and fuel, the Kim government would likely crumble. Unfortunately, Beijing prefers the status quo to the potential consequences of a North Korean regime collapse — namely, a refugee mess and a unified, pro-American Korean democracy. Perhaps one day China’s calculations will be different. Until then, the U.S. should unapologetically pursue a strategy of vigorous sanctions and robust Asian alliances.