Grantee Spotlight: Joel Wit on North Korea

North Korea’s nuclear saber rattling is growing louder.

The North conducted its fourth nuclear weapons test in January, and after launching an intermediate-range ballistic missile on June 21, leader Kim Jong-un boasted that his arsenal could hit US forces in the Pacific. To find out more about what is going on – and what the US should do about it – we recently spoke with Ploughshares Fund grantee, Joel Wit, an internationally recognized expert on Northeast Asian security issues and nonproliferation. Wit is also the founder of 38 North, a program devoted to analysis of North Korea at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies’ US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Here’s what he had to say:

What can be gained from talking with the North?

The United States needs a strategy for dealing with North Korea and we don’t have one, really. We haven’t had one for the past eight years or so. And by “a strategy” I mean that – just like we did with Iran – you have to use all the different tools in your toolbox to deal with a country like North Korea. Only it’s a lot harder because the situation is a lot worse. So that means we have to take the security measures that are necessary to protect our allies. We have to demonstrate to the North Koreans that what they’re doing violates international norms – and we do that through sanctions. But the last piece of the puzzle is you have to have an active diplomatic effort to try to talk to North Korea in order to see if there are any peaceful off ramps to the current road we’re on. So, it’s all of the above.

Why can’t China just “solve” this?

China and North Korea are close but just because countries are in an alliance relationship doesn’t mean one can force the other to do what they want it to do. And it’s the same thing with the United States. We don’t force our allies to do anything. It’s a process of give and take and consultation and in the case of North Korea there are real security concerns involved, namely its feeling that it’s threatened by the United States, by South Korea, by Japan and it’s not just going to roll over and play dead. Even if the Chinese wanted to force North Korea, the North Koreans wouldn’t be forced. But the Chinese are smarter than that. They understand the limits of their alliance relationship.

The nuclear issue with North Korea is complicated, and the president surely won’t resolve it before he leaves office. What should he do to prepare the ground for the next president?

Well, there is a difference between what he should do and what he is doing. What he is doing is reacting to everything North Korea was doing at the beginning of this year, like securing sanctions and further deployments of military systems to Northeast Asia. I think those steps are necessary, but they’re not in and of themselves a strategy to deal with North Korea. We should be actively exploring whether it is possible to at least begin a dialogue again with the North Koreans. But it’s probably too late for this Administration to do anything at this point – I think we just have to wait for the next.

What can people in the US do to further a process that will lead to greater peace and security in the region?

Public opinion polls show that the issue of North Korea consistently ranks near the top of people’s national security concerns. That is important, but beyond that, it doesn’t seem to translate into a sense of urgency on the part of the Administration in formulating a coherent approach…I think that a foundation like Ploughshares Fund can look at ways of mobilizing support for coherent approaches.

Photo: Joel Wit, credit: American Security Project