“While the professional threat inflation complex will no doubt get in gear shortly,” writes Robert Farley at The Diplomat, “recent scholarship suggests caution in coming to the conclusion that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities pose a relevant threat.”
North Korea is at dire nuclear and conventional disadvantage relative to the United States and its allies; North Korea will remain at dire disadvantage effectively forever. Consequently, a new nuclear test does little-to-nothing to alter the real balance of power on the Korean Peninsula. It’s worth noting that the more-or-less successful tests of 2006 and 2009 have, thus far, allowed North Korea to accomplish none of its important foreign policy and security goals, apart from deterring a South Korean-U.S.-Japanese attack that likely would never have happened in the first place.
Last night, North Korea expended a significant fraction of its fissile material to achieve nearly nothing, beyond possibly the irritation of Beijing and the strengthening of right-wingers in Japan and the United States. The appropriate policy response to North Korea remains the same; containment until the regime collapses. Whether that requires five years, twenty-five years, or fifty years, the U.S. and its Northeast Asia allies have time on their side.
I think Farley is right to criticize the threat inflation that fumes out of Washington, D.C. every time North Korea launches something into the air. Some of the time, as we learned last April, the DPRK can’t even manage to conduct a successful launch, and sometimes they even use toy weapons in military parades, illustrating how little their belligerence conceals their essential weakness. There is, as Farley says, little to no threat and the DPRK has “achieve[d] nearly nothing.”
But further containment until the regime collapses is probably not the appropriate policy response. Sanctions and isolation have been tried for decades and have only locked in the regime’s power, encouraged their bellicosity, and worsened conditions for the North Korean people.
“A policy of not engaging Pyongyang,” writes former CIA officer Paul Pillar, “was tried for several years under the previous administration, without success in preventing North Korea’s first nuclear tests.”
“Wise statesmen learn to abandon obsolete or unworkable policies,” writes Ted Galen Carpenter, senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. “President Richard Nixon did so with his opening to China in 1972, and President Bill Clinton did so with his normalization of diplomatic and economic relations with Vietnam in the late 1990s.”
“The results have been clearly positive in both cases” and Obama “needs to show the same judgment and courage by making a sustained effort at the highest level to establish something at least resembling a normal relationship with Pyongyang.”
One possible impediment to dealing with North Korea more constructively is Washington’s soured relationship with Beijing. Our aggressive, militaristic efforts to contain a rising China obstruct any chance to engage with North Korea’s only great power ally on this issue.