Obama’s six options for dealing with North Korea (they’re all terrible)


President Obama visited the South Korean side of the DMZ in March 2012. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages)

North Korea's recent nuclear test, for all its significance, is in some ways just another setback in the world's long and fraught effort to make a stable, peaceful and nuke-free Korean peninsula. That goal matters: North Korea is a serious threat to stability in one of the most militarized corners of the world, a potentially global nuclear proliferator (yes, it can even make things worse in the far-away Middle East), not to mention a horrific human rights abuser. As a problem for American foreign policy, it has confounded the Clinton, Bush and now Obama administrations, which have struggled to contain North Korea's periodic violent outbursts and its forward-marching progress toward a nuclear missile.

So what are the United States' choices here? There are a few and, on review, they are all pretty unattractive. Here are the six general options that the Obama administration might consider, along with a description of how each would work, what its goal would be and, most depressingly, the biggest reason to suspect it might fail or even backfire. (The list, and much of the analysis, is adapted from scholar Stephan Haggard's excellent policy overview for the Peterson Institute for International Economics.)

1) Go to the United Nations Security Council
Goal: Secure tighter economic sanctions that might chasten North Korea enough that they'd voluntarily cease nuclear development.
Why it could fail: China, for all its unhappiness with North Korea's nuclear test, is likely to oppose or at least water down any sanctions.

2) A 'secondary' boycott on firms that do business with North Korea
Goal: Hurt North Korea's already-frail economy by sanctioning anyone who handles the country's money, as the United States did in 2005 by targeting a Macao-based bank that laundered cash for Pyongyang. Weaken North Korea and maybe deter any more nuclear development.
Why it could fail: Most of those firms are probably in China; a boycott could hurt Chinese economic interests – and the American companies who do business with them – more than either the Chinese or U.S. governments might be willing to tolerate.

3) Escalation: hit North Korea back
Goal: An offensive campaign of hacking, covert operations and propagandist broadcasts.
Why it could fail: This might actually serve North Korean interests by allowing them to frame their program as defensive and to rally North Korean citizens, reducing any internal pressure for reform. It could also draw China closer to North Korea. And there is always the chance that North Korea could retaliate.

4) Strike a grand bargain
Goal: Reach a comprehensive deal with Pyongyang that settles the nuclear dispute once and for all, including by making North Korea feel safe and secure enough that the regime will decide it doesn't need nukes after all.
Why it could fail: North Korea has promised to halt nuclear development before, and yet here we still are. A "grand bargain" limited to nuclear issues would probably not change North Korea's overarching calculus that leads it to seek nuclear weapons, which has as much or more to do with the regime's ideology than with perceived external threats. And a broader, all-encompassing grand bargain would have to address humanitarian issues, particularly the gulag system. There's probably no way that North Korea agrees to dismantle them or that the United  States accepts them.

5) Pressure China
Goal: Beijing's support is crucial to North Korea's survival. The Obama administration could make weakening that support a top priority in the U.S.-China relationship.
Why it could fail: This would necessarily come at the expense of other priorities in the U.S.-China relationship, which is perhaps the single most important bilateral relationship in the world. It's also already plenty troubled without making things even more tense and fraught. And, in any case, pressuring China would risk reinforcing, rather than altering, Beijing's calculus in supporting North Korea.

6) "Strategic patience" (otherwise known as containment)
Goal: The world has survived so far with a nuclear North Korea. Maybe we can wait it out until the regime collapses or reforms voluntarily.
Why it could fail: The longer we wait, the stronger North Korea's nuclear program becomes and the greater a risk it poses to the world. On the one hand, zero nuclear warheads were deployed during the decades-long Cold War, when tensions were much higher. On the other, the U.S. and Soviet Union came very close to nuclear war at least twice: in 1962 and 1983. Mistakes do happen. The odds that the Korean peninsula could spin out of control, though exceedingly low, only increase over time.

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Max Fisher · February 12, 2013