Time to Break the North Korean Cycle

It will be days or weeks before the world knows much about the nuclear test conducted by North Korea mid-day Tuesday local time in Pyongyang. What was its actual yield? What did it use – plutonium or highly enriched uranium, or some combination? Did it perform as expected? What will the international response be? Is this a game changer?

These are all valid questions and important things to determine. But when the flurry of post-test chatter and analysis subsides, we must address a fundamental theme if we are to avoid facing another news cycle dominated by the DPRK’s provocations in the future. That theme is the lack of a long-term strategic diplomatic approach to North Korea that necessarily involves forging common ground with China.

A year ago Ploughshares Fund’s executive director, Philip Yun, outlined the reasons why he believed a third nuclear test would occur in 2013. His predictions have unfortunately come to pass. Luckily, the advice Philip gave for avoiding more of the same is still applicable – but time is short.

While the sanctions imposed by the international community and individual nations have succeeded in making North Korea an isolated, pariah state, they have only slowed down its efforts to build and improve its rockets and nuclear weapons capacity. Is North Korea today an imminent threat to the United States? No; no more so than yesterday. But, if we continue on the same course, we can expect their nuclear and missile savvy will continue to progress.

With new governments in Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing, and a second Obama Administration with new security posts being filled, now is the time to re-assess what has worked in the past – albeit imperfectly – and what clearly has not. We can never accept or condone a nuclear North Korea, and ignoring the problem by simply putting Pyongyang in a corner clearly isn’t a solution. Designing a sustainable, strategic approach with allies and critical partners like China – a nuanced combination of pressure and incentives – can on, the other hand, yield positive results. Indeed the long-term security of the U.S. and our allies in the region depend on it. However, finding the right balance of carrots and sticks will not be easy unless we have a better sense of who and what we are dealing with in Pyongyang. What Philip said a year ago about Kim Jong Un still applies, though certainly made harder by North Korea’s recent provocations, “Rather than reading tea leaves about the future, we need a solid grip on the present. Let’s focus on the real and urgent, seriously probing North Korea’s new leadership for facts — and prevent yet another nuclear test.”

Photo: Gabriel Britto