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The North Korea Challenge
Published May 25, 2011
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In the spring of 2009, North Korea’s second nuclear test, its long-range missile tests, and its provocative rhetoric once again threatened stability in Northeast Asia. Once again, North Korea engaged in bluster designed to project strength and resolve in the face of international disapproval. The North Korean nuclear issue has been the most important security issue in the region for almost two decades, and, despite new developments such as the reputed illness of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and new leaders in both South Korea and the United States, the underlying issues remain depressingly the same: how to rein in North Korea’s nuclear programs and entice North Korea to open its markets and bor- ders to greater foreign interactions (Cha and Kang 2003). North Korea itself has been one of the most enduring foreign policy challenges facing the United States during the past half century. From a bitter and divisive war in 1950–53, through the Cold War, and now to the successive nuclear crises, the United States has made little progress over the years.

North Korea itself may be at a major turning point: Kim Jong-il has reportedly suffered a stroke or has pancreatic cancer (or both), and in the near future a new leader may emerge. North Korea also faces recurrent food and energy shortages, and its economic system is barely functioning. The opportunities and dangers of rapid regime change or collapse in North Korea are immense. Yet North Korea may yet again find a way to muddle through, with its basic ruling regime and leadership intact. If there is continuity in the North for the time being, the underlying task will remain the same: how to draw North Korea into the world and away from its dangerous, confrontational stance.

In the United States, most observers across the political spectrum agree on the goal: a denuclearized North Korea that opens to the world, pursues economic and social reforms, and increasingly respects human rights. Disagreement occurs only over the tactics: Which policies will best prod North Korea on the path toward these outcomes? These debates over which strategy will best resolve the North Korean problem remain essentially the same as they were decades ago (Park 1994–95): Is it best to engage North Korea and lure it into changing its actions and its relations with the outside world? Or is it better to contain the problem and coerce North Korea into either changing or stopping its bad behavior?

Furthermore, the questions and debates surrounding North Korea tend to center on discrete and identifiable challenges: Can the United States contain the North Korean nuclear problem? Can the United States change Pyongyang’s behavior on human rights and encourage economic reform in North Korea? Can the United States coordinate the diverse interests and priorities of its allies and counterparts in Northeast Asia and still retain a focus on solving the numerous North Korea challenges? These are all difficult issues in and of themselves; jointly they make the North Korea challenge exceedingly difficult to manage.

Underlying all these questions is an even more fundamental question to which there is no clear answer: Is the United States willing to coexist in a long-term relationship with North Korea and grant it equal status? This question is actu- ally much more difficult to answer than any of the preceding questions, and, indeed, how one answers this question may condition the responses to the other questions. That is, the United States is certainly willing to normalize diplomatic relations with North Korea if it changes completely by abandoning its nuclear weapons programs, opening up its economy, and respecting human rights. But this is also essentially pointing out that the United States is willing to live with regime change in North Korea. The real question is whether the United States can live with North Korea if it changes just enough to pose little threat to U.S. interests but remains essentially the same in character, outlook, and other poli- cies. As Robert Litwack (2008) has pointed out, historically the United States cared about other states’ behavior. Recently, however, the United States has been concerned with their character.

This paper will explore the nuclear, economic, and coordination challenges that North Korea poses to the United States, arguing that a “mainstream” consensus has emerged that a strong preference for engagement coupled with consistent responses to provocation is the preferred strategy. This approach, however, faces numerous obstacles in its specific implementation. The paper will then turn to a discussion of whether the United States can actually grant North Korea the status of an equal partner and legitimate nation-state in international relations, and it poses a much more ambiguous answer. The paper will conclude by exploring the future in North Korea and, in particular, the question of leadership succession and what it means for each of the challenges the United States faces.

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