To break the cycle of North Korea threats, US must put Kim on his heels (+video)
To break the cycle of threats from North Korea, the United States must take a much more assertive stance. Leader Kim Jong-un must be put on the defensive by sending him a clear warning of preemptive action if America and its allies find themselves threatened.
Gallery Monitor Political Cartoons
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But he is simply acting in a way that brings the results he expects from a successful pattern of global extortion. It begins with threats, moves to negotiations, results in economic and political benefits for the North, and is then repeated after Pyongyang spurns agreements.
The way out of this conundrum is for the United States to try a more assertive stance that gives the US the initiative and puts the North on its heels – for instance, by sending Pyongyang a clear warning of preemptive action if America and its allies find themselves threatened.
Of course, putting North Korea on the defensive won’t in and of itself mothball the country's nuclear program or bring a lasting peace to the Korean Peninsula. But it will put the US in a much stronger position to pursue those objectives.
The latest military precautions by Washington are useful to a degree. Welcome, too, are reports that the US and South Korea will respond “in kind” to any military provocations from the North. Still, because these are reactive, proportionate steps, they won’t go far enough to change Pyongyang’s behavior.
Mr. Kim’s ratcheting up of tensions should convince the US and South Korea that the new leader has the same goals as his father, Kim Jong-il, and will repeat the cycle of threats. The young Kim, like his predecessor, wants to show strength and independence of action despite an economic dependency on neighbors. He wants to prove to the ruling clique his determination to stand up to adversaries.
The 30-year-old Kim probably learned from his father that bilateral talks with Washington hold immeasurable value: implicit US recognition and acceptance as a nuclear power, showing to all Koreans he is the key leader determining the future of the peninsula with a superpower. Meanwhile, South Korea is relegated to the position of a second-tier actor.
These selfish motives show that the North’s political and military leadership is fundamentally disinterested in normal relations with the US. Indeed, they fear that normalization and opening up would spell the regime’s end.
Successive US administrations have taken the high road, probing for mutual concessions to bolster stability on the peninsula. True, this approach has helped maintain a tenuous peace. It has given the US some access to an obscure regime and allowed the US to address difficult foreign policy problems elsewhere.
But unfortunately, past negotiations have done little more than temporarily constrain Pyongyang’s provocations, and the downsides of talks have become more apparent in recent years.
Since Washington puts such a premium on stability through dialogue, its words of warning over time have lost their force and may even signal weakness to Pyongyang. Moreover, with every crisis, Washington seems much more concerned about containing the South Korean response while publicly calling for dialogue with the North. The North’s leaders have taken notice.