North Korea’s 7 Year (Nuclear) Itch
Some anniversaries are bittersweet. This week marks the seven year anniversary of North Korea’s first nuclear test. Clearly not to be celebrated, but certainly time to examine where are now with North Korea and its nuclear program, and what – if anything – we have learned since fall 2006.
In some ways little has changed. North Korea remains an anomaly in the world. Its 23 million citizens are effectively isolated; its government is run by a hereditary dictator and a close circle of confidants and elites; its economy is anemic and dependent on a fair-weather friend (China) who only barely tolerates Pyongyang’s behavior. Oh, and that nuclear program that is still active and has produced two other tests since 2006, and diversified from plutonium-based bombs to possibly uranium fueled devices. More rockets have been launched and rhetorical spats sprinkled with sometimes low-level but also lethal conflict crop up.
In other ways, there may be reason to reconsider the U.S. approach to the challenges posed by the North. A new leader is has been at the helm for nearly two years. Little evidence shows that he may be a “reformer” but there has also been little effort to test that assumption. China has recently demonstrated that its patience with its neighbor’s outbursts does have limits. Rhetorically in statements, through actions in the Security Council and independently, Beijing seems more willing to use its leverage to bound the nuclear mischief. One example is the release of an extensive list of “prohibited exports” to the North. China’s willingness to make this public is notable, and the specificity of the items was encouraging as it was clearly aimed at Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. New leadership in Seoul has also been “forward leaning” in attempts to find ways to re-engage in constructive ways with the North.
So the facts on the ground – at least as far as we know them – continue to show North Korea’s commitment to improving its nuclear and missile prowess and a deplorable treatment of its citizens. But the operating environment shows signs of possible entry to alter this course. To be sure, it is never easy or satisfying negotiating with Pyongyang. Setbacks and disappointments are to be expected. But while regional players have been changing their approaches, United States policy has been static. This is not good enough. The policy known as “strategic patience” – shorthand for wait and see and let South Korea take the lead – has not worked and in fact has seen an additional nuclear test and missile launch. Meanwhile, our allies in Seoul and our counterparts in Beijing are working hard to determined somehow to take advantage of Pyongyang’s signals, not only to determine if they are sincere. In meetings held recently in China, Germany, and the United Kingdom, officials from North Korea and China, and private citizens from the United States met to discuss what the prospects were for returning to the negotiating table. Reports are that the North has stated its willingness to put its nuclear program back on the table. Skepticism is certainly warranted; but understanding that more of the same from us will only produce more of the same from the North, our allies and partners in the region are engaged in serious efforts to explore what is possible. That is the definition of diplomacy.
Don’t we owe it to our own security to do the same?