Next US pres­i­dent’s N Korea dilemma

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Among the many chal­lenges fac­ing the next oc­cu­pant of the White House, few will be more press­ing, or more com­plex, than that posed by North Korea’s seem­ingly in­ex­orable drive to nu­clear state­hood. As adamant as Wash­ing­ton is about never ac­cept­ing the North as a nu­clear weapons state, the ground re­al­ity is of a coun­try rapidly clos­ing in on its strate­gic goal of possess­ing a di­rect and cred­i­ble nu­clear strike threat against the US main­land. Py­ongyang’s weapons pro­gram has ac­cel­er­ated sharply in this US elec­tion year, with two nu­clear tests and around 25 mis­sile tests in de­fi­ance of mul­ti­ple UN res­o­lu­tions and sanc­tions.

“Ev­ery sin­gle day that goes by, North Korea be­comes a more and more acute threat,” US Deputy Sec­re­tary of State Tony Blinken said in Seoul last week. What­ever the out­go­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pol­icy was with re­gard to curb­ing the North’s nu­clear am­bi­tions, it has clearly failed. The ques­tion for the in­com­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion, whether headed by Hil­lary Clin­ton or Don­ald Trump, is why it failed and, more ur­gently, what to do about it.

The one thing the new pres­i­dent will not lack is vo­cal ad­vice from any num­ber of think-tanks, pol­icy wonks, for­mer diplo­mats and re­tired gen­er­als who be­lieve they have the so­lu­tion. The last few months have wit­nessed an avalanche of op-eds, re­search pa­pers and stud­ies lay­ing out the path the new White House in­cum­bent should take and is­su­ing dire warn­ings about the dis­as­trous con­se­quences of do­ing oth­er­wise.

Ahead of the curve

“The first hun­dred days in of­fice will be crit­i­cal,” said Joel Wit, a se­nior fel­low at the US-Korea In­sti­tute at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity. “Rather than wait for events on the ground to nar­row down choices and dic­tate pol­icy, the new ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to get ahead of the curve. It needs to shape events it­self-not be shaped by them,” Wit told AFP. The pol­icy ar­gu­ment es­sen­tially pits those who fa­vor threat­en­ing the North Korean regime’s very ex­is­tence with crush­ing sanc­tions backed by mil­i­tary threat, against those who pre­fer a cock­tail of mea­sures in which tough sanc­tions and mil­i­tary strength pro­vide a base for of­fer­ing talks and in­cen­tives to de­nu­cle­arize.

Some an­a­lysts say the de­bate smacks of des­per­ate “do-some­thingism” and sug­gest that deal­ing with the North Korea threat should be more about prob­lem-con­tain­ment than prob­lem-solv­ing. In a stark as­sess­ment de­liv­ered to a Wash­ing­ton think-tank last week, the US Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per said con­vinc­ing North Korea to aban­don nu­clear weapons was “a lost cause”.

As sec­re­tary of state, Hil­lary Clin­ton fol­lowed the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s sanc­tions-based pol­icy of “strate­gic pa­tience” re­fus­ing to talk with the North un­less it takes steps to de­nu­cle­arize. Crit­ics say that boiled down to sit­ting back and watch­ing North Korea’s nu­clear weapons pro­gram slip into high gear.

Tough choices

Those who back di­a­logue in­clude Jane Har­man and James Per­son of the Woodrow Wilson In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Schol­ars who wrote a re­cent op-ed in the Wash­ing­ton Post ti­tled: “The US Needs to Ne­go­ti­ate with North Korea.” They ar­gued for en­ter­ing into di­rect talks with the stated goal of ne­go­ti­at­ing a freeze of all North Korean nu­clear and long-range mis­sile tests.

Ne­go­ti­a­tions would then move to­wards ver­i­fi­able dis­man­tle­ment, with Wash­ing­ton of­fer­ing pos­si­ble con­ces­sions such as a non-ag­gres­sion pact or a sus­pen­sion of joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises with South Korea. “Done right, there is a way out of the insanity,” they wrote. The op­po­site view was put in a brief­ing pa­per from the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion that called on who­ever the next pres­i­dent might be to “steer clear of il­lu­sory out­comes that of­fer no hope of suc­cess”.

The pa­per ad­vo­cated in­ten­si­fied sanc­tions-backed by “a strong foun­da­tion of mil­i­tary mea­sures”-that would starve the regime of for­eign cur­rency, cut Py­ongyang out of the in­ter­na­tional fi­nan­cial sys­tem, and squeeze its trade net­works. “The next pres­i­dent should make clear to Py­ongyang that the United States is pre­pared to put at risk the one thing that North Korea holds even more dearly than its nu­clear weapons-the preser­va­tion of its regime,” it said.

Lack of ex­pe­ri­ence

An­a­lysts say the gamut of opin­ion on North Korea runs par­tic­u­larly wide, given the lack of ver­i­fi­able in­tel­li­gence on, or real un­der­stand­ing of, a coun­try that re­mains re­mark­ably iso­lated. “There are a lot of myths and mis­con­cep­tions that have taken hold in the minds of peo­ple, and these are very dif­fi­cult to coun­ter­act,” Wit said. “In any new US ad­min­is­tra­tion there will be peo­ple mak­ing de­ci­sions who have no di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence of deal­ing with North Korea-who have never even met a North Korean.

“Can you imag­ine a sim­i­lar sce­nario when it comes to mak­ing de­ci­sions about some­where like Rus­sia?” he said. The only real area of con­sen­sus on North Korea is that time is fast run­ning out. Its nu­clear and mis­sile test­ing pro­gram has ac­cel­er­ated to the point where pre­vi­ous es­ti­matesonce seen as alarmist-that it could have an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing a nu­clear war­head to the United States by 2020, are now seen as soberly pru­dent. —AFP

This file pic­ture re­leased from North Korea’s of­fi­cial Korean Cen­tral News Agency (KCNA) on April 24, 2016 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in­spect­ing an un­der­wa­ter test-fire of a strate­gic sub­ma­rine bal­lis­tic mis­sile at an undis­closed lo­ca­tion in North Korea on April 23, 2016. —AFP

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