With North Korea likely to field a reliable nuclear deterrent within the next 5-10 years, the U.S. has a closing window of opportunity to end the cyclical provocations from Pyongyang, which will become extraordinarily dangerous in a fully nuclearized context.
Currently, U.S. policy is primarily aimed at persuading China to increase its pressure on North Korea to force it to denuclearize. This is a tried-and-tested route to failure. In the past, China has usually increased support for the North following provocations, and its underlying interests in North Korea have only increased since the U.S. pivot.
Fortunately, the U.S. and its allies do not need China’s cooperation to break the North Korean cycle. A more effective approach towards Pyongyang requires identifying why the regime perpetuates these crises, and then devising a policy that changes the incentive structure it faces. This can be achieved through a “strategic sunshine” policy that combines aspects of the Obama administration’s strategic patience strategy with South Korea’s former sunshine policy.
For all the talk about the opaque nature of the Kim regime, we have a good understanding of why it perpetuates these crises: to extract desperately needed aid. The origins of this strategy date back to the Cold War when North Korea masterfully exploited the Sino-Soviet split to extract aid from both regimes, promising much in return. If one of its patrons tried to force its hand on an issue of importance, then leader Kim Il-Sung would throw his support more forcefully behind the other patron. This infuriated Chinese and Soviet leaders but ultimately they were not willing to allow the North to align completely with their Communist rival.
Kim Il-Sung’s maneuvering was so successful at extracting aid that the North Korean economy became completely dependent on its continuation. This level of dependence was almost certainly greater than even Kim understood, because much of it was not in the form of direct handouts but more subtle methods like the Soviet Union accepting unusable goods from Pyongyang, and counting them as trade.
This worked well until the Cold War ended and both Russia and China became more interested in economic engagement with the increasingly prosperous South than demonstrating solidarity with the North. As a result, Russia and China’s aid to the North quickly ended and Pyongyang’s economy collapsed almost immediately. The Kim regime, by this time led by Kim Jong-Il, calculated that it could not implement the necessary economic reforms to liberalize the economy without threatening its grip on power. Finding new sources of aid was thus the only way to stay in power.
It achieved this by exploiting its prospective patrons’ most deeply held fears while arousing their most sought after desires. The Chinese government’s greatest interest is in maintaining internal stability, which in no small part rests on its ability to deliver high growth rates. Millions of North Koreans refugees pouring into China in the event of a regime collapse would threaten this internal stability, which was illustrated to Beijing during North Korea’s famine years when thousands of refugees crossed the Yalu River. This experience illuminated to Beijing just how disastrous a regime collapse would be, and it began paying up dutifully.
However, North Korea understood that relying solely on China for aid would make it vulnerable to Chinese coercion to initiate a “reform and opening up” policy at home. Unwilling to do this, Kim Jong-Il needed to find other patrons to counterbalance the Chinese, and South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. were the most suitable options. Towards the South, the Kim regime began dangling the prospect of improved inter-Korean relations, which resulted in the Sunshine Policy. Meanwhile, North Korea hoped to induce Japan into providing more aid by coming clean on its past abductions of ordinary Japanese. Unfortunately for the North, this backfired when the confirmation of Japan’s long-standing suspicions only further infuriated the Japanese people.
Towards the U.S., Kim Jong-Il masterfully used the country’s nuclear program to compel Washington to bankroll his regime. Kim understood that the United States’ greatest fear was the spread of nuclear weapons, a fact that was all too obvious following Washington and its allies’ discovery of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program after the Gulf War. Fortunately for Kim Jong-Il, his father had begun a nuclear program earlier primarily because of the U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in the South. Although George H.W. Bush ordered forward deployed nuclear weapons removed from the Peninsula in 1991, by that time Pyongyang had a new use for the program – to extract aid from the U.S. and South Korea.
Thus, by deliberately stoking a combination of fears over its nuclear program, rationality, and its ability to survive, the Kim regime has managed to keep the inflows foreign aid its economy requires. Under the current arrangement, however, Pyongyang must periodically manufacture crises to force Washington and sometimes South Korea’s hand on the issue.
South Korea’s sunshine policy was intended in part to break this provocation cycle by offering a constant stream of aid to North Korea regardless of its behavior. Since the aid was given on an unconditional basis, however, Kim could still engage in provocations in order to induce aid from the U.S. and serve secondary goals such as advancing its strategic deterrent and bolstering his credibility with the military.
The Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy is also designed in part to break the provocation cycle by not rewarding Pyongyang for its belligerence. Like the sunshine policy, strategic patience only gets half of the equation right, because it fails to reward North Korea for not perpetuating crises.
To properly reconfigure North Korea’s calculus the allies must combine strategic patience’s refusal to reward Pyongyang’s provocations with the Sunshine Policy’s aid provisions. Specially, the U.S. should use back channels to communicate the following three terms to the North:
1. For every six-month period North Korea goes without a provocation, Washington will furnish Pyongyang with an aid package, the terms of which will be unofficially negotiated by their UN missions.
2. In the event of a provocation from the North, the U.S. will suspend any aid packages for one year in addition to whatever other measures it deems necessary. Depending on the severity and length of the crisis, the U.S. might extend the suspension period.
3. North Korea can secure additional aid and benefits in separate negotiations on other issues like denuclearization or the abduction issue. However, it will not be eligible to receive this aid or benefits during any time period when it is under suspension for past provocations.
Some elaboration is necessary here. First, the U.S. should ask South Korea and Japan to join it in adopting this policy towards the North, as a unified front would enhance the policy’s effectiveness. Nonetheless, in the event that one or both refuses, Washington should still proceed, while underscoring to Pyongyang that all three countries remain in lockstep when it comes to responding to provocations.
Second, these terms should be non-negotiable. Although communicating the message privately will allow the Kim regime to acquiesce to the new arrangement without losing face, the U.S. and its allies are the modern powers with the aid that Pyongyang requires. As such, they will define the terms of the relationship, which Pyongyang can choose to either accept or suffer the consequences of failing to do so.
Third, the U.S. should make every effort to be as detailed and precise as possible in defining what actions will result in a suspension of aid, in order to give Pyongyang the greatest chance of compliance. Thus, the U.S. should state that provocations will include: any conventional aggression against the U.S., its allies, or non-North Koreans; rocket, missile or nuclear tests of any kind; the diffusion of any WMD or ballistic missile technology outside North Korean borders; restarting its nuclear program or otherwise acquiring or attempting to acquire additional fissile material; and the kidnapping and/or imprisonment of foreign nationals.
At the same time, North Korea has shown itself to be very creative in dreaming up different provocations, and the U.S. and its allies cannot possibly anticipate all of the ways in which Pyongyang might act out. As such, Washington should make it absolutely clear to the regime that it reserves the right to determine what actions constitute provocations worthy of a one-year suspension in aid. In appropriating this right, the U.S. should exercise restraint in using it, to build confidence in Pyongyang that good behavior will be rewarded. To do this, the U.S. must avoid repeating the mistakes of the Agreed Framework in promising North Korea certain types of aid that it has no intention of delivering. Additionally, every effort should be made to distribute the aid in a timely manner.
A number of objections are likely to be raised towards this policy. First and foremost, many will oppose the policy on humanitarian grounds, charging that it essentially calls for bankrolling one of the most repressive regimes in the world. This criticism falls flat, as this is already U.S. policy and has been for more than two decades. Despite its periodic pledges that it will not be blackmailed into providing aid, the U.S. has time and again succumbed to Pyongyang’s manufactured crises.
The strategic sunshine policy would simply remove the crises from the cycle. This is in the interests of ordinary North Koreans, regardless of whether or not any aid reaches them. After all, they would be the biggest victims if either side miscalculates during a crisis and an all-out war ensues. Moreover, during a crisis like the one earlier this year, the regime often closes all non-war producing industries and holds a general mobilization in which all North Koreans are forced to participate in military drills instead of selling their goods and trading ideas in the marketplace. It is these latter activities that will ultimately bring down the North Korean regime. Thus, a strategic sunshine policy would be more humane than the policies of the last two decades in both slightly reducing the suffering ordinary North Koreans endure under the Kim regime, and hastening the day it no longer exists.
Another likely objection to the strategic sunshine policy is that it gives up on denuclearization. Nothing could be further from the truth. In communicating the terms of the arrangement to the North, the U.S. would continue to reiterate that it will never be accepted as a nuclear weapon state. Additionally, as noted above, the U.S. would continue to offer additional aid and other incentives if North Korea agreed to denuclearize.
Most importantly, strategic sunshine recognizes that no matter what carrots and sticks are offered, the Kim regime may ultimately refuse to surrender its nuclear weapons program. It therefore seeks to freeze the program in its present, rudimentary state. Currently, the North Korean regime does not have a secure and usable nuclear deterrent and will not acquire one without first producing more fissile material, building more nuclear explosives, and conducting more nuclear and missile tests.
Regardless of its intent, the current policy in practice encourages the Kim regime to take these very actions as a means of securing aid. Not only does Pyongyang not have to choose between its nuclear program and its economy, it cannot separate them. One of the central innovations of strategic sunshine is that it forces North Korean leaders to choose between their economy and their nuclear program, by providing aid if and only if Pyongyang does not advance its nuclear program. It therefore seeks to achieve the objectives that Sigfrieud Hecker calls “the three noes: no more bombs, no better bombs, and no export.”
This is not an optimal outcome; denuclearization is. But if denuclearization proves unobtainable strategic sunshine minimizes the repercussions by pressuring the North Korean regime into continuing to champion itself as a nuclear weapon state to domestic audiences, even as it freezes its nuclear and missile programs in place.
Finally, some would argue that in communicating strategic sunshine to the North, the Kim regime is likely lash out and create a new crisis. Unfortunately, this criticism is well-founded. Although the U.S. would seek to prevent another crisis by communicating the terms privately, the Kim regime may well lash out in hopes of forcing Washington to abandon the policy change. After all, through strategic sunshine the U.S. and its allies would be seizing the initiative from Pyongyang in determining when and under what conditions it will receive aid.
The U.S. and its allies must stand strong if Pyongyang initiates a crisis by responding to the provocations in a calm manner while quietly communicating that aid has been suspended for a year. As much as one hopes to avoid another crisis, it is essential to recognize that there will always be some transition costs involved in moving away from the provocation cycle.
Ultimately, it is preferable to incur these costs before North Korea fields a reliable nuclear deterrent, as crises will be much more dangerous once it has achieved this objective. Ultimately, the price of provoking another crisis is a small one to pay for the benefit of introducing long-term stability to the Peninsula, as will occur once the nearly quarter-century provocation cycle is abandoned in favor of a policy of strategic sunshine.
Zachary Keck is Assistant Editor of The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter @ZacharyKeck.