North Korea's brazen, unprovoked torpedoing of a South Korean warship last month has refocused international attention - and criticism - on the Stalinist regime situated above the 38th Parallel. Beyond the public outrage now coming from Washington, however, it's painfully clear that the White House doesn't possess much by way of a coherent approach toward the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) or its "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il.
To be fair, this is not a new phenomenon. For much of the past two decades, the United States has suffered from an acute strategy deficit on the Korean Peninsula. During the Bush years, this dearth of ideas took the form of a haphazard strategy of carrots and sticks, as the U.S. government alternated between sanctions and engagement in an attempt to buy time until a real strategy, better leverage and more robust involvement from allies could materialize.
Since taking office, the Obama administration has done much the same. Early on, in keeping with its overtures toward other troublesome states, it flirted with the idea of deeper diplomatic engagement with the DPRK. North Korea, however, showed little interest in negotiating with Washington. Instead, it responded with renewed provocations, sowing lasting confusion at the White House in the process.
North Korea's most recent transgression has made painfully clear that that status quo cannot hold. Far less clear, however, is what should come next for the U.S. vis-a-vis North Korea. Whatever the specifics, the ultimate approach that emerges in Washington should proceed from three broad realizations.
The first is that the ill-fated diplomatic adventure known as the six-party talks is well and truly dead. Truth be told, that negotiating track - launched in 2003 and encompassing the U.S., Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and the DPRK - never stood much chance of success. The official goal of the off-again, on-again process, after all, was and remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But there's no real evidence that the DPRK's nuclear effort is negotiable. To the contrary, the Kim dynasty's persistent pursuit of the "bomb" in the face of tremendous domestic hardship and international isolation suggests that the powers that be in Pyongyang see nuclearization as the key to regime stability - and to international credibility.
Western strategy, then, would be much better served by assuming that the North's nukes cannot simply be negotiated away. Instead, they need to be contained and deterred. This means greater investments in steps that could help blunt North Korea's nuclear menace to its neighbors, including the provision of additional missile defenses to regional allies like South Korea and Japan. It also requires more stringent interdiction of North Korea's illicit proliferation activities, so that Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile advances don't become more of an export commodity than they already are.
Second, the United States needs to hit Pyongyang where it hurts when it misbehaves. The U.S. Treasury Department's efforts in 2005 to target the North's illicit activities through robust sanctions during the Bush administration had a marked effect - until, that is, the White House reversed course, fearing they would undermine the nascent diplomacy then under way with the North.
This was a critical error. According to experts, the sanctions - colloquially known as "Banco Delta Asia" for their most prominent target - were one of the very few things that had significantly altered Pyongyang's policies. They stripped the Kim regime of access to a key financial institution, previously used in money laundering and the trafficking of counterfeit currency. They also commenced a divestment cascade, as other financial institutions - fearful that they would get swept up in the crackdown - began severing their ties with the DPRK, as well.
The example is still instructive. With the proper political will and the requisite international cooperation, the U.S. government can again create a financial cordon sanitaire by which to isolate Pyongyang and put the Kim regime on notice that its rogue behavior has concrete consequences.
Finally, the United States should seize the opportunity to upgrade its ties to South Korea. Seoul and Washington, of course, have been steadfast allies since the United States became involved in the Korean War some six decades ago. But that doesn't mean they have always agreed on their views of the North. For a decade, the official "Sunshine Policy" of the South Korean government, with its official goal of peaceful reunification of the two Koreas, placed limits on the extent of aid Washington could give and Seoul was willing to receive.
No longer. Since taking office in February 2008, current South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, has abandoned the "Sunshine Policy" in favor of a more sober reading of the North's intentions. The latest skirmish between the two countries has only served to confirm that view and provide an opening for a reinvigorated strategic dialogue between Seoul and Washington on a range of issues relating to peninsular and regional defense.
Of course, after years of malaise and neglect, crafting a new Korea policy won't be easy. Neither, however, should the Obama administration be willing to countenance an extension of the current status quo, in which a nuclear-armed rogue threatens key American allies, with war potentially in the offing. American leadership in the region is sorely needed to reassure skittish allies and curb North Korean adventurism. Defining some new principles for our Korea strategy seems like a good place to start.