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What if North Korea Says No?: Medium-to-Long Term Strategic Options

The premise underlying the question of what do we do if North Korea says no to renewed diplomacy over North Korea's nuclear program is that we are still waiting for an answer. But the North Koreans have already delivered an answer.

Particularly following the UNSC Presidential Statement condemning North Korea's April 5th missile launch, the North Korean authorities removed ambiguity from their response and have embarked on a path of escalation. It is North Korea's escalation that has foreclosed dialogue possibilities for now as Pyongyang, for a variety of domestic and international reasons, attempts to lock in its nuclear status as a fait accompli.

North Korea clearly said no when it stated that it would "never" come back to the six party talks and when the DPRK foreign ministry outlined in January of 2009 its position that denuclearization and diplomatic normalization were no longer tied to each other, rejecting the objectives and linkage of those objectives embodied in the September 19, 2005 Six Party Joint Statement.

In fact, the current situation is one in which the task of the international community and the other parties in the six party talks must inform North Korea that they won't take "no" for an answer. This has involved ever-more intensive degrees of coordination in pursuit of an unprecedented objective: the reversal of a decision by a sitting regime to pursue nuclear weapons following a nuclear test. For this reason and because of North Korea's own preoccupations with leadership succession, regional coordination must increasingly be premised not on negotiations with a specific leader but on creating the conditions under which a current or future North Korean leadership will realize that the only path available for stability and survival is one that will involve denuclearization.

My analysis of the current situation and of possible options for U.S. policy under circumstances in which North Korea rejects dialogue rest on several interrelated assumptions:

First, North Korea is weak, and the nuclear and missile tests have been a manifestation of the fact that Kim Jong Il now recognizes that time is not on his side.

Second, there is the potential for even more rapid changes on the Korean peninsula, and the possibility of dramatic change in North Korea will increasingly require the attention of policymakers in all the countries neighboring North Korea.

Third, North Korea has long been a "hot potato": no single country wants to hold on to North Korea or to own the headaches that will come with responsibility for problems in North Korea.

Fourth, we are still in a crisis escalation phase, in which the conditions for moving to dialogue have not yet ripened in either Pyongyang or Washington. This suggests the likelihood that there will be more provocations and potential conflicts before it will be possible to return to dialogue.

Parenthetically, the groundwork has not yet been laid for a return to dialogue between the United States and North Korea. Although Obama administration officials may believe that they have clearly signaled a willingness to return to the negotiation table and perceive North Korea as having rejected the opportunity for talks, North Korea may believe that the Obama administration has not yet opened the door to dialogue.

I arrive at this conclusion based on the pattern of prior negotiations, in which a prior condition for North Korea to enter into diplomatic negotiations has been a public recognition of North Korea's legitimacy as a sovereign state. This premise was affirmed by the Clinton administration's willingness to pursue bilateral negotiations in 1993 and by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's public statement recognizing North Korea as a sovereign state in May of 2005, prior to the resumption of the six party talks under the leadership of Christopher Hill. The North Koreans have not yet heard such a statement from President Obama. The North Koreans may expect a senior Obama administration official to publicly acknowledge North Korean sovereignty before they will be prepared to reengage in negotiations, but thus far they have received no such encouragement.

U.S. Policy Options if North Korea says No

A U.S. policy to deal with a North Korea that says "no" to renewed negotiations over the implementation of denuclearization is likely to be primarily defensively-oriented and should include the following components:

First, U.S. policy should not be tied to a specific DPRK leadership, but should underscore enduring principles or conditions under which the United States views improvements in U.S.-DPRK relations as possible. Such a declaratory policy would clearly indicate the parameters under which any current or successor leadership would be able to expect improvements in the U.S.-DPRK relationship. For instance, the United States should state that it would welcome normalization of diplomatic relations with a denuclearized North Korea.

Second, enhanced policy coordination with allies and North Korea's neighbors will be critical to shaping a positive outcome on the Korean peninsula. The United States and other parties should pursue defensive measures through coordination with allies: a) to mitigate the negative effects of North Korea's continued escalation and instability, b) to enhance understanding regarding conditions for renewed negotiations and affirm shared objectives, c) enhance shared understanding of North Korea's internal pressure points and how they might be used to influence the North Korean leadership (i.e., through intelligence coordination), d) underscore commitment to defense and preservation of stability and prosperity in Northeast Asia, e) prepare for defense of allies against a nuclear-capable North Korea.

Third, the United States should engage in consultations to prepare for all scenarios, creating an environment in which a responsible North Korean leadership eventually will have no choice but to give up nuclear weapons.

Fourth, the United States should provide a positive vision for U.S. policy in Northeast Asia in an effort to reassure allies regarding U.S. reasonable courses of action and to diminish Chinese distrust regarding U.S. intentions. Coordination to shape a positive path for North Korea will continue to be an important potential vehicle for mitigating regional mistrust and opening new avenues for joint coordination, for instance, on food security or humanitarian relief issues.

Fifth, it will be necessary for the United States to establish a strategic dialogue with China to address U.S. bottom line principles and expectations regarding the future of the Korean peninsula. A prerequisite for such a dialogue to be successful will be a clear delineation of a U.S. vision for security on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia as mentioned above.

South Korean Options

For its part, South Korea should attempt to promote greater international coordination and support for Lee Myung-bak's campaign pledge to raise the North Korean per capita income to US$3000/year, if North Korea opens to the outside world and gives up its nuclear weapons program. Such a policy stands a better chance of success if it has international backing and commitment, led by Seoul. More active efforts by the Lee Myung-bak administration should be taken now to prepare for the eventual implementation of this pledge, so as to enhance the credibility and benign intent of South Korea's policy toward the North, despite the current downturn in inter-Korean relations.

Chinese Options

China faces the most difficult choices as it deals with a North Korea that tries to say "no" to international efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. North Korean actions have effectively demonstrated that China continues to delude itself into thinking it can choose between stability and denuclearization in North Korea, when in fact the desperate attempts of the North Korean leadership to maintain political control are inherently destabilizing.

North Korea's tests have had negative ramifications for Northeast Asia's regional security and for China's own interests, but paradoxically, the U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan are an inhibiting factor that stabilizes the situation and prevents a nuclear chain reaction in Northeast Asia from further jeopardizing China's interests. To this extent, China is a clear beneficiary of the U.S. affirmation of its commitment to extended deterrence with South Korea and Japan.

Longer-term, a U.S.-China strategic understanding regarding regional security in Northeast Asia will be essential to stabilizing the situation in Northeast Asia. A divided Korea has ironically had the effect of providing regional stability during the cold war, while a unified Korea has historically been an object of geopolitical competition among its larger neighbors. A Sino-U.S. strategic understanding regarding the foundations of peninsular security will be necessary to avoid revived regional competition centered in the case of a reunified Korean peninsula, or a situation in which the primary locus of political leadership is in Seoul.

This essay is drawn from remarks given at a July 9, 2009, program entitled "What if North Korea Says No?: Medium-to-Long Term Strategic Options for the Other Five Parties," co-sponsored by The Atlantic Council and the Korea Economic Institute of America.

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