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     Apr 8, '14

North Korea needs 'strategic shaping'
By John Bradshaw

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

A launch by North Korea of two mid-range Rodong missiles last week was a political act that does not indicate any significant increase in the country's missile capabilities. However, the launch, intended to show North Korea's displeasure with current joint US-South Korea military exercises, does serve as a reminder that while nuclear talks remain stalled, North Korea continues to

work on its missile and nuclear weapons technology.

In fact, with little notice, the international community has drifted dangerously close to a de facto acquiescence to a nuclear North Korea. The international community ostensibly remains committed to a process of denuclearization in North Korea, but the diplomatic process that could lead toward that goal has been moribund since 2008. If we continue to ignore diplomacy and hope the problem will go away, the dangers of a nuclear-armed North Korea will only grow, and the prospects of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula will continue to fade.

During its first term, the Obama administration emphasized "strategic patience" toward North Korea, an approach now rebranded as a "dual track" policy combining continued sanctions pressure with a willingness to talk to North Korea only after it has made a strategic choice to abandon its nuclear program. This cedes the initiative to North Korea, giving Pyongyang the time to build up its arsenal and strengthen its position.

For the remainder of its second term, the administration should try a new approach: "strategic shaping". This approach would build upon current policy, but additionally emphasize proactive efforts to set the conditions for more robust engagement to achieve denuclearization.

As diplomacy has languished in recent years, North Korea has steadily developed its nuclear and missile capabilities. Following its third nuclear test in February 2013, North Korea has rebuilt and restarted its main plutonium-producing reactor, doubled the size of its uranium enrichment facility, and expanded its nuclear weapons test site. The country's ballistic missiles have enough range to hit major population centers in South Korea and Japan - possibly while equipped with nuclear warheads - and Pyongyang has made clear its intention to develop missiles capable of reaching the US homeland.

Against this backdrop, there is both a need and the opportunity for the US to take a new approach towards Pyongyang to achieve denuclearization. A relative thaw in inter-Korean relations, marked by last month's high-level official dialogue and the successful reunions of separated family members, has given South Korean President Park Geun-hye the opportunity to start pursuing the "trust-building process" on which she built her campaign. Relations between Seoul and Pyongyang could rapidly deteriorate at any time, as they have in the past, but the current calm situation creates an opportunity to explore creative ways to re-start a diplomatic process.

The immediate focus would continue efforts to strengthen regional stability, enhance crisis management mechanisms, and enable the resumption of multilateral diplomacy on North Korea's nuclear program within the terms set by prior commitments. As multilateral dialogue is resumed, the US would seek interim steps that are realistically achievable, mutually reinforcing, and could enable significant progress toward denuclearization over the next few years.

Realistic, interim steps must be the starting point to reach the ultimate goal of verifiable denuclearization. Preliminary concessions, such as a halt to nuclear and missile testing and a freeze on fissile material production, would slow North Korea's WMD advances and provide immediate value to the US and its allies. Other steps focused on crisis management and the cultivation of long-term change could include expanding channels of communication with Pyongyang to strengthen crisis management, normalizing a visa process for North Koreans visiting the US, and encouraging cultural and educational exchanges.

Changing regional dynamics, such as China's renewed focus on North Korean denuclearization and the South Korean leadership's new policy approach, increase the chances for sustained success. Any interim measures should have buy-in from several stakeholders, particularly China, increasing the cost to North Korea for reversing or stalling implementation of an agreement. China's internal debate over how to handle North Korea has become increasingly public, and this debate might reach a turning point if North Korea abandons an agreement in which Beijing has invested political capital.

Many policymakers in Washington insist on an all-or-nothing approach, balking at any sustained diplomatic contact until an agreement has been reached with a timeline for complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization. But all-or-nothing has only bought time for the North Koreans; the status quo risks de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power. The alternative is to begin taking realistic steps forward now to lay the groundwork for decisive diplomatic breakthroughs in the future.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

John C Bradshaw, JD, is the executive director of the National Security Network.

(Copyright 2014 John C Bradshaw)

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