Two months after I arrived in Beijing in 2006 to head The Christian Science Monitor's Asia bureau, North Korea exploded its first ever nuclear device. The chorus of international condemnation was loud and unanimous; the world agreed that this was intolerable.
Ten years later, two months before I leave this post, Pyongyang exploded a nuclear device for the fourth time, thumbing its nose yet again at UN resolutions forbidding such tests. Then it fired an illegal ballistic missile this month, just to make its point.
“We’ve achieved nothing over the past decade,” laments Winston Lord, a former US ambassador to China. “In fact things have gotten worse and worse.”
On Thursday, President Obama signed into a law a new set of US economic sanctions on North Korea that freeze the assets of anyone doing business related to North Korea's nuclear or missiles programs. But there is little reason to believe that they will prove any more effective than similar measures imposed in the past.
Indeed, it is entirely possible that by the time the next US president's first term ends, North Korea will possess a nuclear-armed long-range missile capable of striking American soil. And nothing appears to be happening, diplomatically or militarily, that might avert that prospect.
“We are heading in a very dangerous direction,” warns Mike Chinoy, author of “Meltdown,” a chronicle of repeated US and international efforts – and eventual failure – to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program. “It is worrying on every count.”
The prospect of a secretive, nuclear-armed, pariah regime with almost no stake in the international system frightens China and the rest of Asia as much as America. But nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang have been a 20-year, slow-motion diplomatic trainwreck, off the rails completely for the past four years. And though the North Koreans are often cast as the only villains, all the major players, including Beijing and Washington, have undercut negotiations at one point or another, contributing to the current stalemate.
The Americans, for example, along with allies Japan and South Korea, promised back in 1994 to build two light water reactors for North Korea if it shut down the nuclear plant from which it was reprocessing fuel for weapons. This was hailed as a landmark deal that would put an end to North Korea’s nuclear threat. But amid mutual suspicions, the allies put that project on the back-burner until the first concrete was poured eight years later, and abandoned it in 2003.
Pyongyang was also angered in January 2002 when President George W. Bush called North Korea part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and Iran. This did not sit well with a US pledge to North Korea’s leadership two years earlier “to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity.”
'Don't count on China'
For its part, China has consistently shielded North Korea from strong UN sanctions that might force the regime to make concessions on its nuclear program. A month after the latest nuclear test, the UN Security Council has still not agreed on new sanctions because Beijing is dragging its feet.
Beijing is fearful of the fallout from regime collapse and moved by traditional ties of friendship, says Sun Zhe, a diplomatic adviser to the Chinese government. As a result, “China has not done enough substantively” to back President Xi Jinping’s declarations that North Korea should give up its nuclear weapons program.
“Don’t count on China” to get tough, he adds, even when North Korea disregards Beijing’s admonitions as cavalierly as Kim Jong-Il and his son Kim Jong-Un have ignored Washington’s warnings and UN resolutions. Time after time, in Sisyphean fashion, US negotiators have rolled the boulder of agreement with Pyongyang to the top of the mountain, only to watch the North Koreans push it down to the bottom again with a provocative action.
The last such episode, four years ago, saw the US pledge food aid in return for a freeze on nuclear and missile tests. What was the response? Just six weeks later, to celebrate the first anniversary of Kim Jong-Il’s death, Pyongyang launched a satellite using a rocket that could double as a long range ballistic weapon.
“That was the final nail in the coffin,” recalls Mr. Chinoy, a former CNN correspondent in Asia. “Any appetite remaining in the Obama administration to talk to North Korea went out of the window.”
Washington plumped instead for “strategic patience,” diplomatic-speak for doing nothing, and simply refusing to acknowledge North Korea’s claimed status as a nuclear power.
The limits of sanctions
The current US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, is trying to fashion a package of Security Council sanctions with teeth. South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who took office promising step-by-step trust-building measures with the North, has now “gone into John Wayne mode,” in the words of one observer, threatening “bone numbing” sanctions.
But even if China goes along, which nobody expects it will, what good would such sanctions do, wonders David Kang, head of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California.
“North Korea meets pressure with pressure,” he argues. “When we squeeze them, they squeeze back. If they didn’t crack in the mid-'90s when 500,000 people died in the famine, how can we possibly crack them now?”
Prof. Kang believes the worm has been in the bud since the Bush administration abandoned the 1994 “Framework Agreement” that had frozen North Korea’s nuclear program for eight years. “They thought Washington had moved the goalposts,” he says.
Other analysts suggest that Pyongyang crossed the Rubicon with its first nuclear test in 2006; until then, Kim Jong-Il had seemed ready to use the nuclear program as a bargaining card he could use to win a security deal with Washington, eliminating the US threat that he felt. After the test, he regarded the program as his best guarantee of warding off that perceived threat, which perhaps loomed larger in his mind after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
At one time, the North Koreans saw denuclearization as a route to normal relations and a peace treaty with the United States that would definitively end the Korean War; now they demand the establishment of diplomatic relations as a precondition for any talks on their nuclear ambitions. Washington rejects that formulation outright.
“There is no way they will give up their nuclear weapons now; they have absolute priority for Kim Jong-un,” says Ambassador Lord, who served as assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the 1990s. But the North Korean leader might be persuaded to at least freeze the nuclear program with a mix of US military pressure, really harsh international sanctions, and Chinese diplomatic pressure, he hopes.
The idea of accepting North Korea as a nuclear power is “too heretical in Washington” to be discussed, says Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
As long as the “hermit kingdom” remains a hereditary Communist dictatorship, he predicts, US policy will remain unchanged. But with market forces rising in North Korea, he believes, the ruling elite is losing some of its control. Perhaps, Mr. Snyder suggests, some sort of “regime transformation ... towards an authoritarian system rather than a personal fiefdom” might pave the way for more fruitful talks. But he sees no hope of the current regime accepting such a transformation, and “years of debate in Washington” over the value of such a change even if it happened. So that does not appear to be a realistic way out.
Nor does forcible US-led regime change, as seen in Iraq and Libya, where US policy did not achieve the desired goals. This Middle East experience - and a reluctance to infuriate Beijing - rule out a military option.