Eight Years Of Strategic Patience Later, Are We Any Closer To Peace In The Korean Peninsula?

It has been sixty-seven years since the end of the Korean War, and relations between the North (or DPRK) and South are as tense as ever. The reclusive North, virtually a leper state, pursues a bellicose, righteous foreign policy narrative punctuated by the long-range missile tests for which it has become notorious. While early multilateral initiatives, like the Six-party Talks, have appeared to have been enabling some degree of constructive engagement between the North and important regional security actors, 2009 saw the abrupt abandonment of these efforts. In its place, the U.S., South Korea, and other important security actors have pursued a policy of “strategic patience.” While certainly less objectionable than a declaration of an all-out war, this foreign policy, which is equivalent of crossing one’s arms and tapping one’s foot impatiently on the ground, appears to have done more harm than good. One of the most severe security dilemmas of modern times is no closer to resolution, and, indeed, the people it threatens are no safer than before.

By 2015 (the fourth year of Kim Jong Un’s leadership) the North had already tested more missiles than Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il had in their 69 years of leadership combined. Ceasing to negotiate with North Korea appears only to have transformed relations between it and Western-allied countries in the Asia Pacific into an extremely dangerous game of ‘chicken.’  The U.S. and its regional allies maintain enormous sanctions against North Korea, while it continues its nuclear weapons program, unabated and autonomous. Given the resolute opposition the North presently has to any of its program, such as groaning under the combined weight of onerous sanctions and global condemnation, it appears likely that it will win this highstakes test of wills if the rules of the test remain unchanged. For instance, the message that these heavy sanctions were intended to send is being utterly ignored by the North, and no amount of waiting for the North to make concessions that will suit these imposing the sanctions is likely to change that. Even as North Korea’s civilian population edges ever closer to another catastrophic famine, the proverbial trigger finger of the Kim regime remains itchy.

With that said, “20 years of failure” may be an overly simplistic assessment of past diplomatic efforts with North Korea. However, Rex Tillerson, the present U.S. Secretary of State, accurately sums up the frustration of many living under the threat of tensions when he describes the efforts and strategic patience being used. Nonetheless, as tensions increase, no sign of a peaceful resolution is visible.

What is it, then, that will prevent this ever-present threat of catastrophic nuclear war from materializing into a horrific reality? A brief excursion to the not-so-distant past may prove informative.

The Six-party Talks of the early 2000s, while achieving few measurable successes, extracted from North Korea, the U.S., and Japan concessions that have not been recreated since. A mere two years before, North Korea angrily withdrew from the talks and refused to honour its obligations, as the DPRK had committed to a declaration of all of its nuclear programs, which included the disabling of experimental reactors and weapons processing facilities, and the normalization of relations with the South, Japan, and the U.S. North Korea had even gone so far as to begin dismantling its largest experimental nuclear facility in Yongbyon. Although these commitments were abandoned when North Korea withdrew in 2009, the Six-party Talks represents an important consultative and cooperation-based framework for the resolution of what otherwise appears to be an intractable security dilemma. While it has never been clear that North Korea would completely denuclearize, the early successes achieved by the Six-party Talks demonstrate how crucial direct engagement with the North is for gradual progress to peace and the normalization of cooperation in the Korean Peninsula. At the very least, a North Korea involved in any sort of multilateral initiative is a North Korea that is, at least to some extent, hamstrung. It would have less of the kind of freedom of action that makes the nuclear-capable missiles in its possession an even more present threat. At the same time, a North Korea sitting at the negotiation table is one with a vastly improved ability to obtain compromises, from other parties, that are crucial to its people’s survival.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s population of 25 million are, perhaps, have been the most hard-hit by the extreme sanctions that have been imposed by countries like Japan, South Korea, U.S., and China, relying in many instances on the provision of food aid. In 1994, approximately 3 million people died in North Korea’s worst famine to date. While food crises in the North are typically fomented by Kim Jong Un’s profligacy and North Korea’s lack of arable land, sanctions, even if legitimately imposed to punish bad behavioir by the regime, prevent the importation of food and frustrate the efforts of NGOs to provide aid. The resumption of negotiations and active engagement with North Korea would provide a crucial opportunity for concerned parties like the U.S., South Korea, and Japan to demonstrate their willingness to compromise for a peaceful Korean Peninsula by helping ensure adequate food supply in exchange for incremental non-proliferation commitments from the North. As the Council on Foreign Relations notes, the principal commitments sought by North Korea in the original Six-party Talks were a non-aggression commitment from the U.S. and the promise of ongoing aid from other countries involved in the Six-party Talks. Cooperation and engagement would give North Korea a platform to negotiate for the kind of aid that will, at least for the time being, allow it to temporarily avert another famine. In the longer term, it will provide an important mechanism by which long-term food security for North Koreans can be ensured and secured by an agreement to cease active nuclear proliferation.

Nonetheless, while convincing the North Korean regime to completely give up its nuclear weapons may be an inordinately difficult task, many are hopeful that tensions in the region can be drawn down to the level that these weapons do not impose as extreme a threat as they do now. Tragedies, such as the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan during World War Two have clearly demonstrated just how crucial it is that all parties involved commit to actively negotiating a solution. The sheer destructive power of nuclear weapons lays bare their true purpose when used: to inspire terror by killing as many civilians as possible with a single strike. That any country is countenancing their use is unacceptable, and indicates an unmitigated failure of policies aimed at denuclearization thus far. Strategic patience is preferable to war, but is otherwise an utter failure on all fronts. For all its past failings, active engagement and cooperation in the style of the Six-party Talks are vastly superior to the lack of dialogue and the escalating threat that strategic patience has fostered.

Matthew Bucki-Smith