Jane Harman, president and chief executive of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served in the House of Representatives (D-Calif.) from 1993 to 2011. James Person is coordinator of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center. The views expressed are their own.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. For years we have applied industrial-strength unilateral and multilateral sanctions in an attempt to force North Korea to denuclearize. We have also urged China — North Korea’s neighbor and largest trading partner — to use its unique leverage to halt Kim Jong Un’s provocations, which also threaten China.
But neither strategy is working. North Korea continues to make progress in testing ballistic missiles and bombs and possibly even in miniaturizing warheads.
Six months after the implementation of harsh new sanctions under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270, North Korea remains defiant. While few expected the sanctions to work overnight, the timeline for any results will be even longer than most anticipate. Sanctions are uniquely ineffective against North Korea. Since the Korean War, the country has faced sanctions-like conditions restricting its access to markets, international financial institutions, and advanced goods and technologies. It became extremely adept at living under these conditions.
Throughout this period, North Korea has also essentially self-sanctioned. Its leaders have chosen economic isolation over integration into the global economy. To maintain their freedom of action, they didn’t even integrate into the socialist economic bloc. They muddle through by mobilizing indigenous human and material resources and, when things really get bad, letting a segment of the population perish.
The effectiveness of sanctions is also limited because of China’s protection. Chinese leaders recognize that their economic leverage over North Korea is a double-edged sword, because sustained pressure could lead to state and societal collapse, precipitating a flood of refugees into northeast China. The collapse of North Korea could also lead to a unified, U.S.-allied Korea on China’s border — which China perceives as a worse outcome than a nuclear North Korea serving as a buffer state.
Besides, U.S. analysts of North Korea have long exaggerated the submissiveness of Pyongyang to Beijing. Communist-bloc documents obtained by the Wilson Center suggest that over many decades, North Korea has perceived China as intrusive and disrespectful of Korean sovereignty. Expecting China to influence North Korean policies means asking China to do precisely what North Korea most resents. Chinese officials recognized that complying with the West’s wishes would only antagonize North Korea further.
Our timelines are simply out of sync. It will take far too long for sanctions to persuade North Korea’s leaders to complete verifiable and irreversible dismantlement as a prerequisite for talks, and we also can’t expect China to use all of the cards in its deck. Meanwhile, each new test demonstrates real progress in the development of Pyongyang’s weapons programs, and North Korea gets closer to mounting a warhead on a missile capable of striking one of our allies or a U.S. military base in the region, or even the United States itself.
Nonetheless, the United States has an underappreciated ace in its deck: North Korea has been trying to talk to us since 1974. Only the United States — the supposed existential threat that justifies its nuclear and ballistic missile programs — can fully address Pyongyang’s security concerns.
To do so, we would have to demonstrate some flexibility. The lesson North Korea’s leaders learned from the Iraq War and NATO intervention in Libya was that no outlier state without nuclear deterrence is safe. Displays of military might — sending B-1 bombers along the demilitarized zone or ships and submarines off the North Korean coast — only make an insecure Pyongyang more recalcitrant. Failing to acknowledge North Korea’s concerns in some small way, even if we consider those concerns unfounded, makes progress harder.
While the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula remains the long-term goal, we propose using this U.S. leverage to enter into talks with Pyongyang with the stated goal of negotiating a freeze of all North Korean nuclear and long-range missile tests and a return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. Realistically, this can only be achieved through direct talks with North Korea, not a return to a six-party process that evoked too much mistrust among key stakeholders, especially between Pyongyang and Beijing.
A freeze would be only the beginning. North Korea has agreed to freezes before only to restart programs once talks stalled or the United States turned its attention elsewhere. But we need to take North Korea seriously and work into any deal contingencies for cheating. Washington has recent comparable experience in hammering out the Iran nuclear deal, however imperfect it may be.
And after a freeze, the next administration must invest significant diplomatic capital in moving talks toward the eventual goal of complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement. This will likely demand additional flexibility on the part of the United States, including the use of carrots as well as sticks. If there are prospects for significant progress, we should consider suspension of future joint military exercises with South Korea and offer North Korea the nonaggression pact it has long sought.
A short-term freeze could also buy time to lessen tensions on the peninsula and throughout the region, and pave a path to moderating the brutal tactics of the North Korean regime against its own people. Done right, there is a way out of the insanity.