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Conundrum? U.S. Policy Debates over North Koreas Nuclear Issues
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Conundrum? U.S. Policy Debates over North Koreas Nuclear Issues






This paper takes a look at the recent developments of North Koreas nuclear issues and analyzes the U.S. policies toward those issues. It sees the American policies as chaotic and without coherence. Even though the Obama administration declares that it would maintain its policy of diplomatic solutions, it is fallen into the horns of a dilemma: that the U.S. government cannot want to have an official meeting with North Korea for fear of giving formal recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state, and that it cannot just disengage and leave North Korea free to develop their nuclear and missile capabilities. As the effectiveness of the denuclearization policy has proved to be controversial, this paper intends to pay more attention to a comprehensive approach in dealing with the North Korea problem with emphasis on the essential cooperative relations between the U.S. and China, which give the impression that China is backing off from supporting North Korea, and going beyond international sanctions against Pyongyang. Starting from the peace process among four countries including both Koreas, the U.S. and China the comprehensive approach would help overcome the constant threats of North Koreas nuclear weapons. The dilemma situation of American policy toward North Korea demands the serious consideration of the historical elements which have shaped the North Korean way of thinking and living over the last century.


Key Words: North Koreas nuclear problems, Comprehensive approach, peace process

Conundrum? U.S. Policy Debates over North Koreas Nuclear Issues




In 1967, President Nixon noted that there is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.[1] While attempting to put an end to the war in Vietnam, he was signaling the desire to discuss a warming of relations with China. At the time, China was depicted as, a frustrated, boiling resentment, resurgent, reemerging Major State in American documents. However, after the historic visit of President Nixon and Kissinger, within a decade there was ushered in an era of Chinese modernization. This led to a thriving U.S. China relationship on a number of levels and in many fields.

On the other end of the spectrum today, North Korea has no diplomatic relations with the United States. Meanwhile, in Pyongyang, over 100 countries have established embassies and representative offices. These countries include the United Kingdom, Germany, and Brazil. Even so, sanctions imposed by UN resolutions and the isolationist policy of the U.S. have contained North Korea. Far from being worthy of the concern given China by Nixon, especially when compared to the population of China, North Korea is not impressive with a  population of less than 25 million people and lacks any real measure of international political leverage. Therefore, compared with China, there is not nearly the incentive for the U.S. to engage North Korea.

However, recent developments in North Koreas nuclear weapons and delivery systems technology have caused a reaction in the U. S. Furthermore, the geopolitical position of North Korea could be a potential asset for U.S.s engagement strategy toward China. However, given the official American position on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it might be convenient to say in sociological terms, that the Obama government has fallen into the horns of a dilemma. Any American official approach to North Korea could be seen as the recognition of the nuclear status of North Korea, but to leave the situation as it is could be translated as an abandonment of the denuclearization policy. On April 10 2012, after unveiling the new Nuclear Posture Review, U.S. Defense Secretary Gates remarked that All options are on the table to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue.[2]It is arguable, however, to say that those options are fully taking into account the realities of North Korea and its peoples core beliefs which were formed during totalitarian rule of 60 years and the Japanese military rule of 40 years.


American Options toward North Korea

From surgical strikes against nuclear facilities in North Korea[3], to regime change or collapse in North Korea, the U.S. had examined all the possible alternatives long before the successful launch of the 3-stage rocket Eunha-3. In addition, since North Korea lacks other means of leverage, it is generally accepted among American and Korean experts on North Korea that brinkmanship is the most effective North Korean diplomatic tool. Given the negotiation history of North Korea since 1950, it is hardly a new lesson. It is evident from prior negotiations with Pyongyang that they always employed twin strategies of dialogue and strike for achieving the same political purpose.

 In reading recent published articles, one may see the strong possibility that the U.S. has been preparing for a confrontation or even a direct military conflict with China over North Korea. Using the term meltdown, instead of collapse for North Korea, Brookings staff called for President Obama to address the mounting risks arising from the instability of North Korea by seeking a serious dialogue with Beijing about the possibility of a major crisis on the Peninsula and to find out about Chinese plans and intentions vis-à-vis the Peninsula.[4] Additionally, the staff wanted to warn Pyongyang of the potential consequences of any  threat of nuclear use or of the testing of nuclear weapons in this potential crisis situation. Other comments related to upholding the safety and security of North Koreas WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) assets, which are the utmost concerns of the U.S., and indicating that the command and control arrangements in North Korea are under increasing stress. Brookings Staff recommended that the President should undertake urgent consultation with Beijing to ensure that neither the U.S. nor China misconstrues the others actions and plans. It is worthy to consider OPLAN 5026-Air Strikes, which is known as the comprehensive detailed plan for air strikes against nuclear facilities near Yong- byon[5].

From strategic patience to negative security assurance[6], the Obama administration has tried to persuade North Korea to change its behavior before engaging with it in negotiations regarding North Koreas nuclear program. According to Selig Harrison, North Korea, for its part, had kept faithfully to the agreed framework until before Kellys visit in 2002. However, President Bushs disparaging remarks regarding Kim Jong-Il and North Korea, and the Bush Administrations Iraq policy caused Pyongyang to embark on the enrichment of uranium contrary to the agreed framework.[7] Consequently, North Korean strategy, which is based on brinkmanship in its pursuit of nuclearization, resulted in restricting the options of the U.S. toward North Korea, putting the U.S. in a corner with few options and caused the U.S. to take a hard-line stance toward Pyongyang.

On the other hand, the goal of U.S. policy toward North Koreas denuclearization was, in effect, to manage the problem of North Korea, instead of eliminating it[8]. This could be construed as policy of laissez faire, allowing for the nuclearization of North Korea and consequently resulting in a hard-line policy within the American government. This is also the kind of the hard line policy which was demanded by the staff at Brookings. The policy of strategic patience has also been criticized as giving North Korea time for nuclearization.[9] Recent development of missiles and nuclear weapons might be presumed to give a green light to the construction of a missile defense system which was proposed by the U.S. for South Korea and Japan.

 In spite of all these criticisms of US North Korea Policy, President Obama, in his second inaugural address, reaffirmed his policy of a peaceful solution of international problems. However, at the time of adopting the resolution of the Security Council  condemning and sanctioning North Koreas illegal acts in 2013 the North Koreans detonated a nuclear bomb.



U.S. Policy toward the Korean Peninsula

Since the beginning of the Six Party talks in 2003, experts on North Korea (American primarily) and a few new internet sites (38North, Sino-NK) have been working on information gathering and diffusing information, particularly on the subject of Sino-North Korean relations. The day after the North Korean launching of a satellite on December 12 2012, an article appeared in the National Review online from American Enterprise Institutes,  Michael Auslin, titled Lets be honest about North Korea: Were Clueless.

It is worth repeating what he pointed out: Save yourself a few precious minutes and ignore everything the U.S. government says about North Korea, ---ignore everything Asian experts say about North Korea. The truth is, we dont have a clue what to do. Its time for the commonsense rule. --- the beginning of wisdom is accepting what you cant control. In North Koreas case, that can be extended to admitting that we dont even understand whats going on, except that its a regime obsessed solely with survival. They, on the other hand, understand us perfectly.[10] If we accept what Auslin says, or perhaps even if we do not we must ask ourselves; Has the U.S.s policy toward the Korean Peninsula been a coherent one?

Its a basic question that needs to be answered when dealing with the Korean problem. According to Selig Harrison, there was no coherent long-term policy toward the Korean Peninsula; or rather the U.S. did not develop that kind of policy. The main reason is that the U.S. prefers to depend on short-term adaptation or a wait and see policy, originally arising from the belief that North Korea would collapse because of food shortages after the death of Kim Il-Sung.[11]

Harrison characterizes the U.S. policy toward Korean Peninsula as incoherent and ad hoc in character. Though the primary policy objective of the U.S. in the Korean Peninsula after 1994 when the Agreed framework was signed between the U.S. and North Korea was expressly stated as denuclearization, Harrison also notes that even during the Clinton-Bush Administrations this policy goal was not pursued coherently.

After signing the ROK-U.S. mutual defense agreement in Oct. 1953, the U.S. declared the strategy of massive retaliation with its threat of a nuclear response to any renewed North Korean aggression. Furthermore, in 1958, U.S. forces in Korea were equipped with tactical nuclear weapons, including Honest John and Nike-Hercules missiles to deter a North Korean conventional attack. One can say, at the very least, that the U.S. policy at that time was based on the deterrence of a full scale attack by North Korean conventional forces.

Most American research centers and experts suggest that the beginning of the North Korean nuclear problem was in the 1980s when North Korea suspended their participation in  Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), demanding the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Korea. Selig Harrison noted in his book that North Korean scientists attempted to prepare for a military nuclear program on their own after the Soviets refused a North Korean request for help in this regard.[12] They completed their first reactor in 1967, and produced plutonium in 1986.[13] More recently, the North Korean regime declared formally in February 2005, that they had manufactured nuclear weapons for self-defense. Secretary of State Collin Powell recognized in December 2002 that North Korea had a couple of weapons.[14]

In September 1991, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, President George W. H. Bush announced the unilateral withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons deployed abroad, and in November 1991, President Roh Tae-woo of South Korea, in response to the U.S. maneuver announced the Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Then, in December of the same year, the two Koreas signed the South-North Joint Declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Though the approximately 100 nuclear weapons deployed in South Korea were removed in 1991, America kept its part of the nuclear umbrella role under the name Team Spirit exercises, in which B1-B bombers and other nuclear capable deployment options took part.[15]

Concerning the first Korean nuclear crisis in 1994, the Clinton administration responded by signing the Agreed Framework, with a comprehensive outlook for the normalization of relations with the DPRK. Formally, this meant that the U.S. government clarified in 1994 the policy of denuclearization in Korean Peninsula, which was demanded by North Korea. In the 3rd article of nuclear freeze agreement, the U.S. stated that it would provide formal assurances against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the U.S.A.[16] Then, during the second crisis in 2002, the Bush administration reacted with the 6-party talks, negating the validity of the Agreed Framework.


Actual State of Korean Peninsula and U.S.s Chaotic Policy

The attempt by the Clinton administration to freeze the nuclear program in North Korea was criticized as a failure by Clinton administration officials, Ashton Carter and William Perry, after the satellite launch tests began in 1998 and continued in 2006.[17] This attempt was also negated by the George W. Bush administration and the Six Party Talks, a strategy sometimes cited merely as an attempt by the regional players to stall and frustrate North Korea.

In October 9, 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, opening a political battle of adopting resolutions in the UN and driving further nuclear testing. The Obama administration has showed a rather flexible attitude in its relations with North Korea, seeking diplomatic resolution. Though criticized as appeasement or passiveness, President Obama has pursued a diplomatic solution with the policy of strategic patience, and even considered giving a negative security assurance to the Pyongyang regime to satisfy the Norths demand to stop the US policy of hostility.[18]

Though Obama declared that he would maintain his policy of diplomatic solutions in his second term, it is difficult for him to approach North Korea without problems. If America has formal meetings with North Korea, then the U.S. government has to face the problem of recognizing the regime as a nuclear state. In its pursuit of the development of nuclear weapons and missiles, North Korea has demanded that the U.S. government should conclude a peace treaty and establish diplomatic relations between the two countries. After the negation of the Agreed Framework, the Bush administration began war preparation and the execution of the Operation Desert Storm. Meanwhile, the North Korean nuclear problem was passed off to be taken care of by the Six Party Talks hosted by China.

The chaotic character of the U.S.s policy toward North Korea was apparent in the policy shift from military options. Starting at the suggestion of Philip Saunders military options in January 2003[19], to Robert Kaplans indication of the possible collapse of North Korea in 2006[20], all options were, as Gates had expressed, debated and recommended in and out of the administrations. Even after the nuclear test in 2009, there article appeared an titled Let the Kim Regime Collapse in the Wall Street Journal.[21]

In addition, the realist attitude of the Americans in a New York Times article was not surprising, which indicated that some American officials expected their first real view of North Korea-made nuclear weapons in the 2012 test, and that they had underestimated North Korea.[22] It is of interest to note that one American military commander noted that the intercontinental ballistic missile launch last December was successful.[23] This is one of  North Koreas goals and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates had already warned at the end of his term that this goal could be fulfilled by 2016.[24] Currently, American experts are divided into two groups; those who support sanctions and the others who put emphasis on new negotiations with North Korea.

Bruce Klingner is a member of the former group, who insists that America should push for more comprehensive international sanctions against Pyongyang, extending to the banks, businesses and countries that facilitate North Korean nuclear and missile proliferation.[25] The Resolution (2087-2013) adopted in United Nation Security Council on 22, Jan., 2013, reconfirming the former sanctions against North Korea, pledged significant actions against North Koreas third nuclear test, and added a bank, and a number of trading companies and individuals to the existing sanction lists.[26]

Stephen Bosworth belongs to the latter group of experts and his comments include a comprehensive approach to the North Korean nuclear program instead of a narrow focus on denuclearization. According to Bosworth, a comprehensive approach may include establishing a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula to replace the armistice agreement.[27] After the third nuclear test in February, 2012 another resolution of the Security Council was adopted.[28]

In this connection, it is notable that an interim agreement signed by P5+1 in Geneva on November 23, 2013, a deal on Teherans nuclear program, which was pursued tenuously by President Obama, will come into effect on January 20, 2014. It can be a good precedent for North Korean nuclear problem to which President Obama applied to his Negative Security Assurance persuading the North Korean regime to denuclearize.[29]

Amid the U.S.- South Korea annual military exercise 2013, North Korean forces conducted their unusual military drills on land, at sea and aerially.[30] In this aggravated situation in the Yellow Sea, it is worthwhile to reconsider Morton Halperins article as a new approach to promote the peace and the security in North East Asia. He suggested a comprehensive approach, which includes a denuclearization process based on the sanctions and alliance relations, and also the termination of a state of war, creation of a permanent council on security, mutual declaration of no hostile intent and the establishment of a regional nuclear free zone.[31]Notably, this approach is comprehensive in its inclusion of  North Korean demands, which are a peace treaty replacing the armistice agreement, mutual declaration of no hostile intent, and of the U.S.s denuclearization process.

According to Halperin, this agreement would differ from the Agreed Framework, which is not a treaty. In this treaty, ten countries will take part in the negotiations, adding four more countries to the Six Party Talks, France, Great Britain, Canada and Mongolia. As an expert on Japan, using the concept of track 1.5 in which Japan should engage in the negotiation with North Korea, he mentioned Japans concerns in its process ahead of China and North Korea.

A comprehensive approach would be a means to start the discussion of the North Korean nuclear problem, as suggested by Leon V. Segal, as a peace process, among four countries, namely South and North Korea, the U.S., and China.[32]




A report for the National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2030 pointed out that the potential for a united Korea might cause strategic alignment to move away from the U.S.[33]Regardless of its gloomy or optimistic perspective of the American position in Asia in 2030, the significance of that kind of prediction must be accepted with seriousness. Additionally, it would be a big setback for the American diplomatic position in the region and could have a severe effect on the decline of American power. Traditionally, the Korean Peninsula has wanted an American commitment to control the international rivalry of neighboring powers. Roosevelts policy of promoting the independence of Korea based on the balance of power principle, gave weight to the reappearance of China as a world power after WWII.[34]

Although the sudden death of President Roosevelt brought change to world politics, South Korea survived the cold war as a symbol of liberal democracy with the American commitment. Roosevelts idea of the independence of Korea shows that he took into account Korea as a balancer in the complicated relations of the three powers in the region. The U.S. should engage with the region instead of, as Global Trends 2030 indicated, staying away from the Korean peninsula because of rising Chinese power.

In accordance with the incremental approach, policy instruments could be decided beforehand, but in the case of policy-making, policy objectives should be adopted before choosing the policy instrument. Saying that all options are decided means that the objective of the policy depends upon the policy instrument. When Bosworth said a comprehensive approach was needed, it means that the policy objective should be decided before suggesting options. As indicated above, all the options on the table could be applied to certain circumstances depending on their objective. Furthermore, those options could not be a break-through, or a creative policy to solve problems. This means the interactions of option-circumstance could give rise to certain unexpected effects, which may drift away from the intended result.

It should be remembered that North Korean problems are not impossible to solve, but rather a certain amount of time is needed, to understand the 20thcentury history of East Asia, particularly Korea. For example, in the case of collapse, or dissolution, or break-up of North Korea, it is taken for granted that the North Korean people would choose to live a in free society. However, unlike the East Europeans who remembered the European free atmosphere before 1945, and who treasured a nostalgic dream of freedom, North Korean people have had no nostalgic dream of a free and liberal atmosphere to remember. They suffered from the tyranny of Japanese military rule for 40 years before the liberation that came at the conclusion of WWII. Even after the establishment of the North Korean communist regime, the organization of a new society based on Songbun, a kind of ascribed status, and their thorough indoctrination which did not permit any disloyalty to that regime, are difficult trends to break and would likely persist at least three generations beyond Kim Jung-un.

Recent developments in the relations between the U.S. and China have indicated that the cooperation of the two countries could go beyond sanctions on North Korea, which give the impression that China has finally backed off from supporting North Korea.[35]Cooperation was firstly mentioned in regards to the collapse of the North Korean regime, which may be caused by a U.S. surgical strike on North Korean nuclear facilities or the melting-down of the regime in Pyongyang. In the plan, the U.S. and China might cooperate in the takeover of North Korean nuclear facilities, by establishing a dividing line – presumably the Wonsan- Pyongyang line- to prevent the collision of the two forces. According to Reuters, Foreign Ministers of China and Russia agreed in February 2013 that it was very important not to allow the situation to be used as a pretext for military intervention.[36]

Differently from the attitude of hawkish confrontation and even destruction, according to Pritchard,[37]of Bush Administration toward North Korea, President Obama has used the policy inducement,[38]based on the negotiations with selective tactics of sanctions.[39] It may be of interest to note that the recent Obama Administrations achievement obtained in the relations with Iran has revived the hope of denuclearizing North Korea. The strategic patience, based on the negative security assurance which was considered as failure after the nuclear test and the missile launch of North Korea in 2009 and by the frustrating violation of leap day agreement by North Korea in 2012[40], has scored a small success in concluding the nuclear interim agreement with Iran on November 20, 2013. In that agreement, U.S, and allies have secured the obligations from Iran, which go beyond the IAEA member state obligations, and Iran has obtained the 15 billion dollar worth of benefits by signing the agreement.[41]

Though criticized by Republican Chairman of Foreign Affairs in the House of Representatives, Ros-Lehtinen, as a policy of appeasement vis-à-vis the provocations of North Korea in 2010,[42] President Obama adhered to his policy of diplomacy and secured the decision of Iranian President Rouhani to abandon the nuclear program.[43] This deal was designed to stop each side from getting much worse off while negotiation of a broader deal continued, and send a signal that meaningful agreements are possible, despite the enormous mistrust and hostility on both sides.[44] In this sense, such type of negotiation and process of the agreement, may be a good lesson for the re-negotiation with North Korea. The agreement is a small first step that tests the ground for the possibility of a comprehensive deal. This agreement may be important, insofar as it forms part of the route to what can constitute as a consequential final accord.


Conclusion and the Implications

Who is afraid of peace in Korea? 60 years have passed since the signing of the cease-fire agreement in 1953 and sporadic clashes have continued ever since. After the missile and nuclear tests in 2012 and 2013, the military situation in the Korean Peninsula has become drastically aggravated along the DMZ. The Cheonanham incident in 2010 has spawned the massive annual U.S.-ROK joint military exercises in the West Sea with the participation of  B-2 bombers and nuclear submarines equipped with Tomahawks  and B-2 Bombers, and the reactive military drills of North Korean forces mobilizing missiles have had a heightening effect on the potential for armed confrontation between two the Koreas.   

Newly elected South Korea President Park Geun-hye has said that the vicious cycle of military confrontations should be stopped, but for the time being she did not want to take any initiatives in the peace process. Neither side is proposing that a relaxation of tensions, or denuclearization and a peace treaty, have been put on hold since North Korea held nuclear and missile tests.[45]

Chinese Defense Dept. spokesman Yang expressed worries about the recently signed, Combined Counter Provocation Plan between U.S. and ROK on March 22, 2013.[46] This assumes that a crisis of extreme confrontation might have a good chance of forging a channel of a dialogue. Following the suggestion of Leon V. Segal, four party talks could be held under the auspices of China as a precursor of peace and stability in this region, for the comprehensive agenda of peace and stability in Korean Peninsula.

As ardent disciples of balance of power politics, in their enthusiasm, Americans are apt to forge a Cold War configuration pursuing alliance and containment. Trumans misunderstanding of Roosevelts ideas on Chinas position should not be blamed, as the international situation of that time changed with the changed internal power relations of China. The bipolar system established after WWII, which was evident from 1942, and was established with ease by the dominant power of the U.S. vis-a-vis Soviet Russia operated smoothly for many decades. The familiarity and seeming stability or control in such a system leads many to call for the pursuit of such realist policy. In the case of the Korean Peninsula this may mean a US policy of sa