By Troy Stangarone
With North Korea having successfully conducted a third nuclear test, questions are once again being raised about the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” towards North Korea. However, have critics of strategic patience hit on a fundamental flaw of the policy or are they merely expressing their policy preferences?
One of the more recent criticisms of strategic patience comes from William Tobey, who on ForeignPolicy.com argues that “the Administration can no longer apply “strategic patience” to the threats from Iran and North Korea. Patience is becoming neglect and neglecting them will only make them worse.”
However, it is unclear what alternative policy Tobey or others would suggest. In the case of both Iran and North Korea, the United States has alternatively attempted to engage both regimes in dialogue while also pursuing additional sanctions either through the United Nations Security Council or on a bilateral basis. In many ways, both North Korea and Iran are relatively insensitive to sanctions, while efforts such as the “Leap Day” agreement to reach even a limited new understanding with Pyongyang quickly feel apart with North Korea’s missile test.
Tobey’s criticism of strategic patience isn’t the first. In 2010, it was criticized as “strategic passivity” and a “strategic blunder” among other things. Many of these criticisms are based in the idea that by not actively engaging North Korea the United States is only allowing the problems with North Korea to grow and that it is not really addressing the root of the problem on the Korean peninsula, the strategic insecurity of North Korea. Of course, if Pyongyang was pursuing a highly enriched uranium program in secret while negotiating on its plutonium program, it raises questions about the ability of dialogue to contain the problem.
At the same time, critics have argued in the past that Pyongyang is open to negotiations because of its concerns about becoming increasingly dependent upon China. However, just because Pyongyang is open to dialogue, does not mean that the regime has the same goals and objectives for discussions. While Pyongyang may be uncomfortable with too great a reliance on China, and hence hopeful of eliciting U.S. and South Korean aid, that does not also mean that they are willing to give up their weapons programs. If North Korea has made the strategic decision to proceed with its program, no amount of dialogue and engagement may be successful.
In this context, the policy of strategic patience was put in place as an attempt to modify Pyongyang’s behavior. Or rather, to demonstrate that there would be no reward for North Korean provocations as in the past.
The administration’s policy of strategic patience was never designed to preclude negotiation with North Korea over its weapons programs. In fact, the United States held talks with North Korea in Geneva in 2011 that at the time seemed to lead nowhere due to concerns that Pyongyang was not seriously interested in denuclearization. Those talks, however, likely laid the groundwork for what became the “Leap Day” agreement in early 2012 when the administration reached out to the new regime in Pyongyang shortly after Kim Jong-il’s death. The agreement sought to establish a moratorium on North Korean missile tests, but was left stillborn by North Korea’s failed satellite launch later that April.
The real challenge for strategic patience is that it faces the same difficulty as the “Sunshine Policy” under progressive administrations in Seoul. Can the policy yield results before it loses the political support needed to be viable? For any policy of strategic patience to work, North Korea would have to engage in a series of provocations for which the administration did not respond with engagement. By seeking talks too soon after a provocation, the administration would run the risk of its engagement being seen as the same past attempts of offering concessions for promises of better behavior. Hence, to conclude that the policy has failed because North Korea engaged in a provocation is more a statement of the critics’ policy preference than a criticism of the actual policy’s weaknesses – the primary of which is arguably that the policy provides no active leverage to change North Korea’s behavior.
This means that any policy of strategic patience must be coupled with a policy of strategic ambiguity. Without uncertainty regarding if and how the United States will respond to provocations, it is unlikely that the calculus in Pyongyang will fundamentally change. Instead the risk, which critics would rightly point out, is that North Korea will merely conclude that a higher threshold of provocations is needed to achieve its goals. In essence, like the rest of North Korea’s economy, inflation will have set into its policy of nuclear blackmail.
In the end, whether strategic patience succeeds or fails, the United States faces few good options in dealing with North Korea. At the same time, while there are good reasons to engage North Korea when opportunities present themselves, negotiations should not be seen as an end in themselves. Negotiations are a tool, one which can be used by both sides. In the end, to succeed with North Korea there must be a willing partner in Pyongyang. Otherwise, negotiations could end up just being North Korea’s own version of strategic patience.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his alone.
Photo from the Secretary of Defense’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.