Rethinking US Policy Toward North Korea

When the US and China meet this week, North Korea and its nuclear weapons program will certainly be on the agenda. The meeting will also be a test of the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s policies toward China and North Korea, in particular its policy of “strategic patience,” which seeks to isolate North Korea and not offer diplomatic rewards for its provocations.

The success of this policy, many believe, depends on the cooperation of China, North Korea’s sole ally in the region. To date, China has put a snag in this policy by consistently offering support, including food aid, to North Korea, thus limiting the effectiveness of this policy.

If Obama can capitalize on the upcoming talks, it may be possible for the snag to become part of the solution.

“Part of the solution lies in China, which has maintained diplomatic and economic relations with North Korea as its neighbour to the north. Trade between the two countries has reportedly grown in the past decade, or at least up until a Chinese banking decision curtailed financial ties in early May,” writes George Gao of the Inter Press Service.

One of the stumbling blocks, says Gao, may be China’s preference for stability in the Korean peninsula, which makes it less likely that they will take a more coercive approach to North Korea.

Is There An Opening For Progress?
Gi-Wook Shin, director of Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Thomas Fingar former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, and David Straub, a former State Department Korean affairs director see some sunlight in US-China discussions over North Korea.

“The Obama administration, too, believes that China could have a decisive impact on Pyongyang’s behavior. More so than preceding U.S. governments, the Obama administration has sometimes implicitly criticized China for not cooperating more to restrain Pyongyang. In recent months, however, numerous administration officials appear to have concluded that Chinese leaders are rethinking their approach,” they posit in a recent New York Times op-ed.

A More Effective Approach To Dealing With North Korea
It is conventional wisdom that the United States must include China in any strategy to effectively deal with North Korea. Given the critical support China has given North Korea over the years, particularly during times of crisis, and the fact it is North Korea’s sole ally in the region, this thinking is not irrational. But Zachary Keck makes the case in The Diplomat that the US, in fact, does not need China in order to improve relations.

“A more effective approach towards Pyongyang requires identifying why the regime perpetuates these crises, and then devising a policy that changes the incentive structure it faces. This can be achieved through a “strategic sunshine” policy that combines aspects of the Obama administration’s strategic patience strategy with South Korea’s former sunshine policy. For all the talk about the opaque nature of the Kim regime, we have a good understanding of why it perpetuates these crises: to extract desperately needed aid,” contends Keck.

Keck also suggests the US recruit South Korea and Japan to join in shifting policy toward engaging Pyongyang and providing incentives for not perpetuating crises.

Keck says the policy of strategic sunshine will force North Korean leaders “to choose between their economy and their nuclear program, by providing aid if and only if Pyongyang does not advance its nuclear program.”





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