The U.S’s first ballistic missile test was a complete disaster. The Atlas Missile Program, which began in the early 1950s, attempted its first ballistic missile launch on June 11, 1957. The rocket flew for 24 seconds before blowing up. It took two more years before the first successfully armed test flight took place.
Failed weapons tests are necessary components of the weapons development process. That is why the U.S. needs to pay more attention to North Korea. They just tested their fifth underground nuclear test. Pyongyang claims it now has the capability to attach a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile. If their claim is not true today, we can bet on it being true in the future if we continue to allow them to test and develop weapons.
The Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” implies the U.S. will wait patiently until Kim Jong Un decides to engage with the international community about North Korea’s nuclear capacity. It prescribes no proactive actions to deal with this very pressing issue—and that is simply dangerous. Curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program will require dedicated U.S. leadership, not passivity.
The next occupant of the White House will have to grapple with four strategic questions to decide how we solve the North Korea dilemma:
1. Is Kim Jong Un a leader with whom nuclear talks are worth pursing?
The Six Party Talks with North Korea failed in December 2008 because Pyongyang continued to pursue nuclear capabilities aggressively throughout the negotiations.
The question we must consider is whether engaging in talks under Kim Jong Un’s leadership would yield different results.
On one hand, his behavior and rhetoric toward the U.S. are arguably even more aggressive than his father’s. Human Rights Watch also called North Korea’s abuse of human rights “without parallel in the modern world.”
On the other hand, keeping the potential for negotiations open expands our options for how to deal with North Korea.
2. How can we persuade China to pressure North Korea to roll back its nuclear program?
China is a critical piece to the North Korea puzzle. It is the only country that has any real influence over North Korea’s behavior. It is North Korea’s largest trading partner and closest political ally.
Although Beijing has implemented sanctions on some North Korean products, they still allow certain North Korean businesses to operate within the Chinese economy, giving the North Koreans the ability to avoid sanctions. The PRC has also taken measures in recent years to block the UN Security Council from implementing harsh punitive sanctions against North Korea for conducting illegal missile and nuclear tests.
At the same time, the U.S. and China share a number of concerns about North Korea: they do not want to see a nuclear-capable Korean peninsula.
They also have expressed concern about Kim Jong Un’s tyrannical style of leadership. He has purged a number of high level officials with whom China had positive relations.
Our North Korea strategy must focus on leveraging our shared interests with China in order to persuade them that more action is needed to address this issue.
3. How can we convince China that our presence in the region and our alliance with South Korea does not pose a threat to them?
A China-friendly North Korea serves as a buffer between southern China and the U.S.’s sphere of influence in the region—something of which China is perpetually skeptical.
The main reason China entered the Korean War was out of fear the U.S. would conquer the whole peninsula after U.S. troops crossed the 38th parallel in October 1950.
A feasible North Korea strategy must consider how to reassure China that our objectives on the peninsula are not aggressive. We can do this by deliberating ways to support improved relations between China and South Korea. Helping to smooth out this relationship will be critical to maintaining stability on the peninsula.
4. Is Korean unification an antiquated concept, or an objective we should work toward?
This is a tricky question to pose, let alone answer, because Korean unification is one of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye’s top foreign policy priorities. Realistically, she has a ways to go to convince her own society that unification is a worthy goal.
The Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification Studies found that more than 50 percent of South Koreans aged 20-34 who participated in a Unification Attitude Survey in 2015 believed inter-Korean unification was unnecessary. Even senior leaders of Park’s Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation are having difficulties gaining consensus amongst a divided South Korean society on how to pursue this objective.
While South Korea leadership has been steadfast in their belief that the only way to achieve reunification is through peaceful means and not regime change in North Korea, the decision will have to be made on what parts of North and South Korean society should be integrated and whether this is a process in which Kim Jon Un is willing to participate.
Every day North Korea gets closer to obtaining a fully functional nuclear-equipped ICBM. The U.S. cannot delay in rolling out a comprehensive plan to address the developing North Korea threat. No presidential candidate has presented anything close to such a plan.
I sincerely hope the next administration makes this an early priority.