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Trapped in No-Man’s-Land: The Future of US Policy Toward North Korea

By
10 June 2016


US policy toward North Korea has reached a dead end. Built upon a foundation of dubious assumptions, the Obama administration’s approach—whether called “strategic patience” or by some other name—has failed to achieve any progress toward US objectives in the region and no longer serves US foreign policy and national security interests. During the administration’s time in office, the North’s nuclear and missile threat has expanded, the danger of periodic tensions and unintended escalation on the peninsula has grown and little or nothing has been accomplished in terms of effectively dealing with non-security challenges such as Pyongyang’s human rights violations. Moreover, the North has managed to improve its economy while at the same time moving forward with its nuclear and missile programs. In fact, by adopting a policy that in effect stands back from the fray, the United States has diminished its status as the arbiter of peace and security issues on the peninsula.

While most experts in Washington agree that the current US policy has failed, there is little or no agreement on alternative approaches. Moreover, there appears to be scant chance that the Obama administration will alter course with less than a year left in office. Admittedly, dealing with Pyongyang is difficult under the best of circumstances, and the past seven years have proved particularly challenging. Developments since the leadership transition in Pyongyang and uncertainties about the North’s future, continuing nuclear and missile efforts (nuclear tests in 2009, 2013 and 2016 and space launches in 2009, 2012 and 2016) and the failure of the 2012 “leap day” deal all complicated matters. It is also true, if former campaign and other officials are to be believed, that, once briefed on the realities of the North Korean nuclear program, the incoming administration made a conscious decision even before these events that attempting to reach a diplomatic solution with the North would be politically unwise given the risks of failure. Add to this witches’ brew the donnybrook in Washington over the Iran nuclear deal, and any renewed effort to formulate a new initiative toward the North seems more than unlikely.

This paper explores the failures of current US policy toward North Korea, the threats and challenges posed by North Korea and developments that may help persuade the next US administration to adopt a new approach.

Download the report, “Trapped in No-Man’s-Land: The Future of US Policy Toward North Korea” by Joel S. Wit.

Find other papers in the North Korea’s Nuclear Futures Series.

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2 Responses to “Trapped in No-Man’s-Land: The Future of US Policy Toward North Korea”

  1. Tim Bowman says:

    While it is easy to chalk this up to another Obama administration foreign policy failure, it was a no-win situation. Kim Jong Un is not going to change the way the north does business: talk, take a small action, get major concessions, and then go back on the deal and blame the other side. He was no doubt emboldened by the obvious fact President Obama is weak and indecisive, and the north likely felt they could leverage this to get a deal to their liking. President Park’s resolve in demanding concrete results and follow-through, and shutting down communication and trade when they failed, coupled with Kim eliminating moderate voices in his inner circle through “traffic accidents,” indicates that we won’t see any progress until the north is truly faced with desperation.

  2. jakob says:

    As far as can be judged, on policy towards North Korea, if Mme. Clinton wins, will be one of more brass knuckles; her advisors are, it seems, hard line.
    It strikes me as strange that the so-called muscular diplomats at Foggy Bottom have little stomach and patience to talk to North Korea.
    And yet, Kissinger did negotiate with the North Vietnamese who ran him ragged. Then the US could bomb the North, which the US can not to the DPRK, who have nuclear weapons. Still that should keep America from trying, the more especially since every major speech, when you strip down the wooden language, is a call for communication.
    It would also do well to restrain the fantasies of South Korea in its quest to full a Syngman Rhee like dream of actively continuing the hot Korean War. It is useful to remember Seoul didn’t sign the 1953 Armistice Agreement, and the US simply ignored Rhee.
    The US has embarked on a hard line approach which willy nilly has led it to a dead end.
    What’s more, it has like the Bourbon kings, as Tallyerand so tersely remarked, ‘learnt nothing and forgot nothing’. A sure fire formula for failure.

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.