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:
- Escalate the "reputational sanctions" targeting the regime's illicit activities, such as international financial institutions that hold the ill-gotten gains of the regime's henchmen, including the Kim family. And follow through vigorously on implementation and enforcement. Few things got Kim Jong Il's attention like $25 million of his personal fortune being frozen in Banco Delta Asia's accounts in 2005. Condition the lifting of the sanctions on a dramatic improvement in human rights, such as the closure of the regime's prison camps and release of all prisoners of conscience.
- President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and other senior U.S. officials should hold visible meetings with North Korean defectors, dissidents, and survivors of its prison camps. And encourage other world leaders to do the same.
- Substantially increase financial support for independent broadcasting into North Korea (via radio, TV, and Internet), step up countermeasures to override the regime's jamming, and even explore ways to get uncensored radios and televisions into the hands of more North Korean people.
- Press for a U.N. Security Council debate on applying the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine to North Korea for "crimes against humanity," and the application of Principle Three on intervention by the international community. With the possibility of further famines caused by state malevolence, on top of the regime's ongoing depredations, such a debate would at a minimum draw global attention to conditions in North Korea, and might even lead to multilateral action.
- Include Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Bob King at the table in any possible future resumption of negotiations involving North Korea (whether six-party talks or bilateral). This will make clear that America's priority concerns are not just the DPRK's nuclear weapons but also its treatment of its people.
- Direct the intelligence community to increase its collection efforts on human rights conditions within North Korea. Most of what the U.S. government knows in this area comes from the intrepid work of human rights NGOs and defectors. Much more could be learned if the intelligence community devoted resources to mapping the locations and activity patterns of prison camps, monitoring the DPRK's internal repression system, and identifying possible dissident activity.
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.