So what do we do about a problem like North Korea? As I wrote in my previous post, there are no good options. The use of armed force could result in a catastrophic that could kill hundreds of thousands. We have negotiated with the North Korean's in the past, and they have a quite bad track record of keeping their commitments.
Given these bad options, perhaps we should do nothing. That is the suggestion of Robert Kelly, an associate professor on international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea. As he argues, strategic patience has worked for the U.S. in the past, and it may well be the best option now:
Patience does suggest waiting, and while this seems demoralizing, I defend it, because more active approaches have huge downsides. This is why, despite the regular ritual of North Korea policy reviews when new administrations take over in Washington or Seoul, we usually end up defaulting back to deterrence and waiting for North Korea and its Chinese patron to change.
Specifically, we are waiting for North Korea to liberalize and/or China to realize that its support for North Korea is more damaging than beneficial. Much as we waited for the internal contradictions of Communism to catch up with the Soviet Union—which they did by the 1980s—so we are waiting for some kind of opening in Pyongyang. We must also wait on China, because Beijing’s assistance to North Korea buys the regime time and space to escape those contradictions. If North Korea were truly isolated, without its Chinese sponsor and with Chinese cooperation on United Nations sanctions, the failures of the North Korean system would accumulate rapidly, much as they did in the late 1990s.
Obviously, these are high hopes. We will be waiting a long time. But that does not obviate the strategy. It worked in the Cold War. And just as more active approaches toward the Soviets, like rollback, had large risks that ultimately made patience and continuing deterrence the best choice, the same applies in Korea. Alternatives to strategic patience are tempting, but risky.Kelly emphasizes, however, that strategic patience does not really mean we do nothing. There are steps the affected countries can take while we wait for North Korea and China:
Finally, strategic patience need not mean passivity among the democracies germane to the problem, namely South Korea, Japan and the United States. While we wait for China and North Korea to come around, those actors can: expand their defense spending (especially Japan), bolster missile defense, start taking seriously civil defense, tighten sanctions, and encourage China to enforce sanctions. They can also trim away North Korea’s diplomatic contacts, which it uses for illicit, hard-currency-raising programs, especially in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. So yes, we must be “patient” regarding North Korea and China—there is little other choice—but we need not be passive at home.Read it all here. In effect what Kelly is suggesting has been the policy of the U.S. since the Clinton Administration. Each Administration does a careful review of the options and rejects both negotiations and armed conflict as the solution. This policy has not resulted in change, but patience means patience. Much like the defeat of the USSR in the Cold War took decades of patience, prevailing in North Korea may as well.
What do you think?