As Presidents Barack Obama and Lee Myung-bak prepare for their first official summit next week, the North Korean nuclear crisis is surely at the top of their agenda. This summer marks the start of the 20th year of the Western diplomatic process pursued in the hope of "finding a solution" to the "North Korean nuclear problem." At the beginning of this effort, a North Korean nuclear arsenal was nothing more than a twinkle in the eye of Pyongyang's "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung. Today, many years of "denuclearization talks" later, North Korea is a self-declared nuclear weapons state.
To avoid eventual catastrophe, Messrs. Obama and Lee must discard the comforting illusions that have permitted generations of statesmen to sleepwalk through nearly two decades of progressively mounting North Korean nuclear menace. The continuing, overarching failure of Western diplomacy with North Korea is due to a flaw in fundamental premises. Washington, Seoul and others have long assumed (or hoped) that Pyongyang will have an interest in helping us to "solve" the "problem" it poses to us. But nothing could be further from the truth. Our North Korean "problem" is their North Korean "solution."
North Korea's strategy, accordingly, is to make what we regard as the "North Korean nuclear problem" bigger--much bigger. Kim Jong Il has been patiently and methodically laying his groundwork for years. The regime needs not only a stockpile of nuclear weapons, but an inventory of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads. The eventual purpose is to threaten the American heartland. To date, North Korea has attempted two nuclear detonations and amassed a stockpile of atomic devices.
The only way forward is a fundamental paradigm shift in dealings with Pyongyang: The goal of the United States and its partners should not be a negotiation breakthrough but rather a threat reduction. This can be carried out in many separate theaters. In the Korean peninsula, it would require inter alia a significant redress of Pyongyang's military menace against Seoul. In the Northeast Asian region, more effective missile defense, an enhanced proliferation security initiative and a more muscular police effort against criminal sources of state revenue for Pyongyang would all seem in order. Globally, one could envision a more serious international human-rights strategy for North Korea that involves Europe and the United Nations; a more activist approach to bring North Korea to court on its world-wide violations of commercial contracts; and more carefully tailored initiatives to emphasize North Korea compliance with her existing international obligations. (Note that military instruments of coercion have not been mentioned here.)
There would clearly be room in this paradigm for diplomatic dialogue with North Korea--but such interactions would be evaluated by their efficacy in reducing the North Korean threat to the international community and her member states. A shift to "threat reduction" would by no means imply abandoning the objective of North Korean denuclearization. To the contrary, a more practical approach for dealing with Pyongyang could actually increase the odds of bringing about big changes in the behavior of this revisionist state. As long as we yearn for "diplomatic breakthroughs," all the cards are in the Dear Leader's hands. Once we conceptualize the North Korean problem in terms of "threat reduction," the cards are in our hands.
A threat reduction strategy should be complemented by a high-level dialogue in the West for contingency planning. The U.S. and her allies should think through their interests and objectives for eventualities that might alter the political and strategic landscape in Korea. Institutionalizing a high-level architecture for such deliberations would be an important step toward more coordinated assessment of potential problems from North Korea--and according responses. Given its asymmetric interests in the North Korean problem, Beijing is not currently a suitable partner in such deliberations--but it could be informed about these deliberations, or even eventually included in them, as China's contribution to North Korean threat reduction warranted.
The U.S. should never waver in its vision: a successful transition from the current division to a Korea that is democratic, economically free and--at long last--whole. This vision promises prosperity and security--not just to Koreans, but to many others in Asia, and beyond.
Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at AEI.