Further to Will Tobey's excellent post below, the last thing that the Obama administration wanted to deal with during Thanksgiving week is another crisis with North Korea. The administration's policy thus far of "strategic patience" has rightly avoided the past traps of rewarding the DPRK's bad behavior and broken agreements with further concessions. But the Kim regime's latest round of belligerence -- including artillery attacks on civilian populations in South Korea and ominous advances in its uranium enrichment program -- show the limits of strategic patience alone in the face of an adversary willing to escalate its provocations to dangerous levels that cannot be ignored.
In the short term there are no good options on the table, only a difficult set of choices as the White House seeks to avert war on the Korean peninsula while dissuading the DPRK from further aggression and reassuring U.S. allies in the region, especially South Korea and Japan. The announcement of joint military exercises with the South Koreans is a good start, but more will need to be done. Just what that "more" entails is the hard part. As my former NSC colleague and Korea expert Victor Cha said in the Washington Post yesterday, "in many ways this is our worst nightmare… the administration has really got its work cut out for it."
Will Tobey is correct that beyond the tactical challenges of this current flare-up, the administration should develop a long-term North Korea strategy that includes seeking the end of the Kim dynasty dictatorship. Such a strategy will entail many components. One pillar it needs to include, especially for a peaceful change in North Korea, is human rights promotion. In the midst of the current policy stalemate, a pivot by the U.S. towards a renewed focus on the plight of the North Korean people and the illegitimacy of the Kim regime could provide a strategic game-changer.
The regime's greatest vulnerability is its appalling barbarity and decades-long torment of its own citizens. It also represents an area of potentially overwhelming international consensus. With the unfortunate exception of the cynical Chinese government, virtually no global power supports North Korea's mistreatment of its people.
What might be done? There are many possible steps; here are just a few:
Finally, don't expect help from China. Beijing ostensibly shares an interest with the U.S. in curtailing the nuclear adventurism of its most problematic client state, and has on occasion (though not consistently) been helpful in restraining Pyongyang. But when it comes to the regime itself, China's interests diverge from the United States', at least insofar as Beijing has made the short-sighted calculation to keep propping up the Kim dynasty as a buffer state on its border. The United States should leave the short-sightedness to the Chinese. A more visionary long-term strategy for the United States should include concrete steps to support the North Korean people in ending the tyranny that afflicts them.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.