With the American people thirsting for a new foreign policy, transcending the aggrieved, insular doctrines of "regime change," "pre-emptive war" and the "global war on terror," a breakthrough might be found in a most unlikely place--the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. North Korea's alienation from the world community is a grave threat to peace in East Asia. But with the right kind of American leadership, North Korea can be coaxed back into concord with its Asia-Pacific neighbors. The new Obama administration has a chance to make history by ending the 60-year conflict that divides the Korean peninsula, and reversing the two decades of solitude that has exiled an entire nation from the global community.
After 20 years, it is time to acknowledge that the conventional strategies--belligerent quarantine and ambivalent engagement--have failed to achieve positive outcomes for the United States, East Asia, or the North Korean people. America is now at a crossroads of opportunity to reformulate our basic political strategy and alter the underlying nature of U.S.-North Korean relations--as opposed to repeating the pendulum swings of the Bush-Clinton-Bush years. However disagreeable, the leadership in Pyongyang is a reality. Diplomatic progress will only take place once the reality of the Kim Jong-il regime is accepted as the starting point of change.
Failed Foreign Policy
Before making history, we need to look at where history has brought us so far. The current framework for dealing with North Korea evolved back in the late 1980s in the wake of two game-changing developments: the end of the Cold War and the birth of the North Korean nuclear weapons program. The fall of the Soviet Union, combined with successful capitalist transitions across East Asia and Eastern Europe, dealt a crushing blow to the already crippled North Korean economy--a relic of unrepentant communism. The Free World's victory over communism lulled many in the West into a complacent view that the North Korean political and economic system would be overrun by the "end of history." Many assumed it was simply a matter of time before the North Korean domino tumbled and fell.
But other observers rejected such Whiggish confidence in the post-Cold War moment. North Korea, particularly when threatening to go nuclear, became the epitome of the rogue regime and pariah state, the embodiment of terror and evil. Whereas the "end of history" paradigm assumed that time would do the work of diplomacy, the "axis of evil" rubric placed North Korea outside diplomacy, and by extension, history itself. Only military intervention by "modern" outside nations could remove the "pygmy" of Pyongyang, as George W. Bush tellingly called Kim Jong-il.
On the basis of this end-of-the-world scenario, the North Korea policies of Bush 41, Bill Clinton, and Bush 43 oscillated along a single spectrum. At the hard end was the quarantine approach, sanctioning and isolating Pyongyang in the hopes of inducing "regime change." On the soft end of the spectrum was an ambivalent form of engagement, focused on the immediate issues of denuclearization. Hawks circled, wishing they could swoop down with direct military force, but lacked political muscle and--especially after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq--military resources to do so. Doves cooed, quietly waiting for history to do its handiwork, and sweep aside the government on the other side of the negotiating table.
The last two decades have shown that neither isolating North Korea nor halfheartedly negotiating with Pyongyang works. Instead, North Korea stands as one of the most striking failures of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy. The United States has been unable to stop North Korea's nuclear program, end the Korean War, undermine or liberalize the Kim regime, integrate North Korea into the world economy, or reconcile North and South Korea. Any of these outcomes would have constituted some kind of progress--none has been achieved.
Instead, since the end of the Cold War, tens of millions of Koreans have died of famine, millions more suffered poverty and despair. Over the past decade, the Pyongyang leadership developed enough weapons-grade plutonium for a half-dozen nuclear weapons, tested long-range missiles and a nuclear device, and participated in nuclear sharing activities, involving Pakistan and allegedly Syria. Kim Jong-il's "military first" regime, backed by armed forces of 1.2 million, maintains firm control over political power (even now, amidst reports of Kim's ill health, the regime appears relatively stable). The United States, meanwhile, has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea. The American military presence--at an estimated annual cost of $5 billion--is a drain on resources in an era of rapidly escalating defense spending. America's troops are also a major strain on the U.S.-South Korean alliance, which has frayed in recent years.
Bold Bilateral Initiative
The challenge facing the Obama administration is to transform a useful, short-term mechanism to prevent war (the Six Party Talks) into a far-reaching process of creating peace on the Korean peninsula. This would require bracketing, to some extent, the nuclear...