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No More "Strategic Patience" on North Korea

Walter Russell Mead

Speaking in Seoul, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared an end to America’s policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea, ruling out new negotiations while raising the implicit threat of a pre-emptive strike if Pyongyang escalates further. The New York Times:

“The policy of strategic patience has ended,” Mr. Tillerson said, a reference to the term used by the Obama administration to describe a policy of waiting out the North Koreans, while gradually ratcheting up sanctions and covert action.

Negotiations “can only be achieved by denuclearizing, giving up their weapons of mass destruction,” he said — a step to which the North committed in 1992, and again in subsequent accords, but has always violated. “Only then will we be prepared to engage them in talks.” […]

But classified assessments of the North that the Obama administration left for its successors included a grim assessment by the intelligence community: that North Korea’s leader, Mr. Kim, believes his nuclear weapons program is the only way to guarantee the survival of his regime and will never trade it away for economic or other benefits.

The assessment said that the example of what happened to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the longtime leader of Libya, had played a critical role in North Korean thinking. Colonel Qaddafi gave up the components of Libya’s nuclear program in late 2003 — most of them were still in crates from Pakistan — in hopes of economic integration with the West. Eight years later, when the Arab Spring broke out, the United States and its European allies joined forces to depose Colonel Qaddafi, who was eventually found hiding in a ditch and executed by Libyan rebels.

As the Times reported two weeks ago, the intelligence community’s bleak assessment on North Korea has left the Trump administration with no good options, with traditional diplomacy and deterrence efforts having failed to halt Pyongyang’s progress. The additional intel here offers another lesson: that our failed Libya policy echoed all the way in Pyongyang, making war with North Korea more likely. The cost of America’s ill-advised, poorly planned, and badly executed Libya intervention remains higher than its architects have ever admitted.

But the intel assessment as reported by the Times misses a deeper point: nukes and missiles are the only crop North Korea has ever learned to grow. When their other crops fail, as tends to happen in totalitarian communist regimes, the Norks have to sell what they’ve got. They sell proliferation technology to other bad guys like Iran, but they also sell the prospect of a negotiated end to their program to the U.S. and its partners. Give us some aid and economic assistance, the pitch goes, and we will stop or at least slow down our efforts to build weapons that can kill you. But they can’t stop, because otherwise they could not feed themselves, much less feed the appetites of the country’s appalling elite for the trappings of Western luxury.

What successive U.S. presidents have done with this problem is to kick the can down the road. The alternatives are ugly: either the U.S. accepts whatever buildup the Norks manage, including missiles capable of delivering nuclear bomb strikes to the U.S. mainland, or it starts down a path of coercive diplomacy that would, if the Norks don’t back down, lead to Korean War Two.

It was not irrational to kick this can down the road since the 1990s, given the alternate scenarios that might have played out. The regime could have collapsed. It could have decided to embrace Chinese-style reforms that would have made it richer even while leaving the current elite in charge. China could have grown so weary of the continual crises the Norks provoked, and the impetus that North Korea’s warlike stance gave to Japan’s drive for rearmament, that it decided to do the dirty work for us and rein them in.

Unfortunately none of these things have happened, and time is running out. There could still be one last chance for a diplomatic solution, as Richard Haas lays out here. Calling for a final round of direct talks, even if they do not go anywhere, would demonstrate a good-faith effort to negotiate that could rally support for a more intense policy. But lots of pieces have to work right for this to move. The absence of trained and accomplished personnel, to say nothing of a fully staffed administration, will make it hard for the Trump team to craft an appropriate strategy in real time—one that involves bringing allies and U.S. public opinion together, while both reaching out to and threatening China.

A very good idea now, and one of the few that might actually reduce the threat of war, would be for the past three presidents to issue a joint statement saying that the situation has now become serious, that they agree with Tillerson’s statement that “strategic patience” has failed, and that the Trump administration will enjoy bipartisan support as it moves to confront the new reality. Clinton, Bush and Obama may not agree on much, but all of them have to be aware that the timer on the North Korean time bomb is ticking toward zero.

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