I have been working on and following issues in Asia for more than 20 years from various vantages; from the US government (including stints at the Department of State, White House, Department of Defense and Treasury) to think-tanks, through to journalism and business. But no issue has been more vexing or confounding to me than North Korea. Virtually every aspect of my experience has been frustrating and often counterintuitive. Just when you anticipate a new leadership in Pyongyang testing the waters of engagement with a friendlier South Korean government, North Korea instead embarks on a risky course of confrontation. When the US and South Korea are ready for a showdown, Pyongyang suddenly switches gears and talks about peaceful relations. Despite North Korea’s recent starring roles in Hollywood blockbusters either as scheming masterminds (Olympus Has Fallen) or ruthless conquerors (Red Dawn), the truth is no country has played a bad hand more daringly.
As I think back on my various encounters with the “Norks” (as they are unaffectionately known) – formal, staged engagements with the North Korean military in the 1990s, random encounters with “businessmen” in Macau in 2002 and periodic meetings with North Korean diplomats at various multilateral events over the course of the past four years – I am consistently struck by the fact that no other countries’ representatives have such a short choke chain. For all the claims of Pyongyang wanting to be “engaged” by the US, in virtually every encounter I have experienced my North Korean interlocutor was decidedly non-communicative, either enraged over some supposed American perfidy or exceedingly cautious not to stray from state-sanctioned talking points. There is also quite a lot of talk about creating a “sea of fire” in various places.
People often ask me how to understand North Korea and the peculiar mindset that has grown and festered in the area above the demilitarised zone. I tell them to read two books – Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son or any one of James Church’s excellent novels from the Inspector O series (the tales of a North Korean detective) such as A Corpse in the Koryo. I felt more aligned with North Korean thinking and strategy after reading these wondrous novels of a fictional world than I did from consuming reams of highly classified analysis over decades.
Given the series of provocations engineered by Pyongyang just in the past few years – nuclear tests, missile shots, proliferation activities, ship sinkings and artillery fire against South Korean outposts – it is easy for critics to lambast US strategy towards the North. But the truth is there is criteria on the other side of the ledger that indicates the US is playing a longer, patient and more successful game of strategy. More focus needs to be given to several surrounding issues, ones Washington has been better able to influence.
For instance, the US has demonstrated a willingness to negotiate with Pyongyang but not to budge on issues of core concern that would alienate the North’s neighbours or undermine global norms (North Korea’s nuclear status, for instance). There are no other countries in Asia currently contemplating nuclear programmes. The US has severely constricted North Korea’s surreptitious exports of military items and missiles to Myanmar and states in the Middle East, restricting the flow of hard currency to the Pyongyang leadership. The US has held its allies Japan and South Korea close in the long-running stand-off and demonstrated repeatedly and consistently its resolve to protect them. The US has also pressured and persuaded China to work diplomatically to constrain North Korea and to co-ordinate on occasion at the UN. And the US has continued to buttress defence capabilities and approached the North with a recognition that any hope of diplomacy rests on the reality of deterrence.
Still, the balance sheet on North Korea seems unsatisfactory. But as a reminder, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, many thought the US was losing the cold war to a darker, more cunning adversary.
Korea is often called the land of the morning calm but really it is the land of lousy options. And that is particularly true for American diplomacy. Yet over decades, the US has consistently followed a prudent integrated strategy: keep American forces and the combined military deterrent strong; pursue prudent diplomacy with eyes wide open; keep faith with South Korea and Japan; insist that China do more to rein in North Korea; highlight the plight of the North Korean people and be vigilant about proliferation concerns; and above all be patient and pragmatic. No one knows how this ends but like the cold war, American strategy on the Korean peninsula will probably look better in retrospect – that is, if North Korea does not do something foolish that we (and particularly they) will regret.
The writer is chairman and chief executive of The Asia Group and co-chairman of the Center for a New American Security. From 2009-13 he served as the assistant US secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs