Don’t Return to Korea Status Quo

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Don’t Return to Korea Status Quo

Two decades of engagement have gone nowhere with North Korea. It’s time to take steps to undermine the foundations of the regime itself.

In the wake of North Korea’s failed missile launch, Washington policymakers may be tempted to believe that the danger of a catastrophic breakout has passed, and that the United States can expect to return to relative quiet on the Korean Peninsula. This belief is deeply misguided and wrong. Indeed, satellite imagery has suggested that Pyongyang is preparing for a third nuclear test. Furthermore, the launch attempt has demonstrated that the regime is as dedicated as ever to expanding its ballistic missile capabilities – both to blackmail the international community, and to sell that technology off to its fellow rogue states. The United States and the free world must recognize that the core of this crisis is the nature of the North Korean regime, and adopt a multi-pronged strategy that will undermine the junta’s rule.

North Korea is the lynchpin of the global proliferation of nuclear and ballistic missile technology. The Hermit Kingdom has provided invaluable assistance to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Meanwhile, the Syrian nuclear reactor at Dair Alzour was a mirror image of the North’s uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon. As the authoritarian state develops its capabilities, it soon disseminates that knowledge to the world’s rogue states. Therefore, the proliferation crisis in the Korean Peninsula is in large part the measure of the proliferation crisis throughout the world.

North Korea’s attempt to cast last week’s actions as entirely peaceful is ludicrous. A “satellite launch” and an ICBM launch are practically one and the same, as the underlying technology and principles of both are identical. Indeed, the United States’ first astronauts were launched into space on converted ICBMs. Therefore, last week’s missile launch shouldn’t be primarily seen as a failure fit for mockery on late-night comedy shows, but as a demonstration of Pyongyang’s commitment to developing the most dangerous weapons in the world’s arsenal. 

The sole concern of North Korea’s rulers is the continuation of their regime. Hence, since the onset of the nuclear crisis in the early 1990s, Pyongyang has sought to bind agreements with non-aggression agreements with the United States and aid shipments. While this latest round of missile and nuclear tests are tied to the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, and securing the “legitimacy” of Kim Jong-un in the eyes of the military and the people, they are also part of the North’s long-held strategy of acting provocatively to extract favorable concessions at the negotiating table. The administration is to be commended for its refusal to ship food aid to Pyongyang in the wake of Friday’s test, but there’s little reason for confidence in the Obama administration to offer aid again in the future.

Instead of accepting a perpetual diplomatic game of inches with Pyongyang, Washington should fundamentally orient its policy towards ensuring the regime’s ultimate overthrow. First, the United States should lead an international effort to completely stop the North’s shipment of conventional arms, ballistic missiles, and nuclear technology abroad. Likewise, Washington should target and freeze their financial assets in the international banking system. North Korea showed extraordinary sensitivity to the freezing of their funds in Banco Delta Asia during the Bush administration. President Obama would do well to find another avenue of leverage against the regime, and use it to full effect. 

Furthermore, the West should begin a political war against Pyongyang. Reports such as the recent publication that details the plight of the North’s 200,000 political prisoners should be immediately and repeatedly highlighted by senior administration officials. Additionally, the United States should work with countries in the region to ensure that North Korean escapees are not forcibly repatriated, but instead able to begin new lives free from that brutal dictatorship. Most importantly, the United States should place the cause of the freedom of the North Korean people at the very center of this effort by encouraging the spread of cell phones and radios within the population to facilitate the spread of badly-needed outside news and perspective and improve the quality of Radio Free Asia broadcasts to undermine the North’s propaganda, and inspire revolutionary action against Kim Jong-un and his generals.

As long as the North Korean regime remains in power, the resolve and will of the United States will be continually challenged. Until the Leap Day Deal, the Obama administration had demonstrated an admirable refusal not to reward North Korea’s brazen behavior with political concessions and economic aid.  Last week’s launch attempt should prove that Washington’s twenty years of attempts to engage the Hermit Kingdom have been completely fruitless. Instead of more attempts to cajole the North, the United States and allied governments should orient their policies towards the ultimate goal of removing the regime from power. Only by ending the Pyongyang junta’s brutal reign can true peace ever come to the Korean Peninsula.

Evan Moore is a Policy Analyst for the Foreign Policy Initiative.