North Korea’s latest nuclear test shows that Washington’s policy of not engaging with Pyongyang has failed. It’s time for President Obama, in his last year in office, to try a new approach.
In response to North Korea's nuclear test the US and the international community are going through the motions again as they have done the three previous times when the autocratic regime defied nonproliferation rules and UN resolutions.
First, Washington and the UN Security Council condemned Pyongyang's actions. Now they are mulling new sanctions to punish the already heavily sanctioned and deeply impoverished nation. Those sanctions, it isn't hard to predict, will likely have little impact on the regime's behavior.
What could prove more effective is a change in US policy vis-à-vis North Korea. That's because the Obama administration's current policy of "strategic patience" is clearly not working, experts note.
Sit and wait
In a nutshell that policy stipulates that Washington should simply wait and not engage with Pyongyang until the regime is ready to give up its nuclear arsenal. This scenario was based on the underlying assumption that North Korea was unlikely to make technological advances that could render its crude nuclear weapons program more dangerous to its neighbors and the US. As a consequence, Washington has not engaged in bilateral negotiations with North Korea since 2012.
"The Obama administration calls it strategic patience, but frankly it is hard to tell the difference between that and not doing anything," said Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea scholar at Leeds University. "So I think it is a kind of neglect and I think it is culpable."
Shannon N. Kile, an American who heads the Nuclear Weapons Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) noted that it is becoming increasingly clear that the North Koreans are able "to make technical progress with both their missile and their nuclear programs, regardless of the sanctions that are in place, and that is now time to think about a new approach."
Neglect, not weakness
Both experts point out that a change in course is no guarantee for diplomatic success vis-à-vis North Korea, but still better than sticking with the failed "strategic patience" approach. That failure however, they added, does not mean, that the Obama administration has not been tough enough on North Korea as some Republican presidential candidates have suggested.
"My criticism of Obama is neglect, I don't think it is weakness," said Foster-Carter. "I don't think waving a big stick would have worked better."
To the contrary, it could be argued, that the Obama administration's all-or-nothing approach towards Pyongyang was too tough and unrealistic. After all, what incentive did the regime have to change its behavior?
"Just something a bit more imaginative, a bit more creative to see what the space is that's how I would put it," said Foster-Carter when asked what he would hope to see from the Obama administration.
"I think there is a growing sentiment now both in the arms control community, but also in the wider diplomatic community […] that North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs as a precondition for negotiations is probably going to be a non-starter," said Kile.
Instead, he argued, the US should now focus on the more modest and realistic goal of getting North Korea to freeze its nuclear and ballistic missile programs in a verifiable manner. To achieve that, Kile said, Washington should use the leverage it has vis-à-vis Pyongyang and restart bilateral talks.
He noted that North Korea still very much wants a peace treaty with the US to officially end the Korean War and it wants to normalize ties with Washington.
"Those are two objectives in which the US actually would have some benefits as well," said Kile. "So I don't take it for granted that there is some sort of incompatible or impossible demand that the North Koreans are putting forward. I think it is going to be incumbent on the Obama administration in its last year, and whoever takes over as the next president, to reconsider the US approach to North Korea."