Michael O'Hanlon is coauthor with Kenneth Lieberthal and Martin Indyk of Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy, and of a new book on the US defense budget, Healing the Wounded Giant.
Nothing the US and other countries have done in response to the recent North Korean nuclear test and subsequent provocations has been unreasonable. Pyongyang is the problem here, and that should come as no surprise given that it is the last remaining pure Stalinist state left on earth. But that said, is there a way we might have taken a different tack in recent months? This is not just a history question; it could become relevant if North Korea tests yet another nuclear weapon, for example.
North Korea's third nuclear test in early 2013 led to additional UN sanctions followed by a round of retribution from North Korea that leaves the threat of war greater than most would like as of this writing in April. Was there an alternative?
I would like to suggest, while referencing other aspects of the crisis and other policy tools, that in fact we might wish to broaden our imaginations about what to do in such situations in the future.
The international community faces a conundrum. North Korea is already sanctioned intensively and without China, we cannot tighten the noose a great deal more. China does not wish to increase the economic pressure on Pyongyang much further, fearing that North Korean instability could result. Moreover, North Korea has already shown that, when sanctioned, it often ups the ante rather than backing down.
There is another dilemma: North Korea may be producing highly enriched uranium at a secret site. This could give it the capacity to produce up to several bombs' worth of U-235 per year, in theory. As Graham Allison of Harvard and others have warned, this could lead to North Korea selling nuclear materials to the highest bidder, something the US should, as Allison advises, warn North Korea not to do in the strongest possible terms.
And there is one more complication, although this one is of a different sort. It has to do with the longer-term prospects for encouraging North Korean reform. While hope is clearly evaporating that North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong-Un, might be more inclined than his father or grandfather to consider changes at home and détente with the world, we should want to keep that option alive. After all, Vietnam and China ultimately reformed even while keeping their communist systems. There is a chance that North Korea will too — less out of any softening of the regime's attitudes than out of economic necessity.
Clearly the new, 30-year old leader is not showing any reformist inclinations right now. But it is possible that he feels political pressure internally to establish himself with hardliners before he can pivot to a more reasonable line. This may not be the likely future trajectory, yet it cannot be ruled out.
So my thinking is that the additional sanctions laid down by the UN this year could have been made temporary. They could have been constructed in such a way as to sunset automatically in, say, two years if there were no further nuclear testing in the interim. But they would automatically return if North Korea were to conduct another test, again for two years' duration — or perhaps for 3 or 4 years in that event, to avoid any suggestion that this approach was somehow soft or lenient.
Such an approach cannot be applied now, I don't suppose. But it should be kept in mind for the future. It might prove more negotiable with Beijing. It could also give Kim Jong Un a chance to reassess his belligerent ways and would allow the US and its allies avoid locking themselves into a permanently hostile dynamic with him.
This would not be intended as a soft approach. Any lifting of other, pre-existing sanctions, including trade sanctions, would require resolution of the broader nuclear problem. North Korea would have to stop enriching uranium and agree to a long-term plan for gradual denuclearisation. Indeed, if it did these things while also gradually making other reforms, outside powers could also offer it the prospect of substantial development assistance.
We are not at a point where that kind of roadmap to a grand bargain and fundamentally improved relationship can be realistically pursued. For now, therefore, the goal should be more modest: to provide a firm response to North Korea's unacceptable behaviour, but in a way that can engender Chinese participation while not closing the door to a calmer relationship down the road. Making any additional sanctions temporary, after a possible future provocation by Pyongyang, could achieve this balance and should be considered.
Perhaps in a year or so, we can (via prior understanding with Beijing) suggest turning the latest round of sanctions agreed in January into a temporary measure. That option would appear like weakness now, but crafted cleverly and pursued down the road, it just might help avoid a repeat of the current ugliness — or worse — in the future.
Photo by Flickr user zennie62.