My ‘Newsweek Korea’ Cover Story: A Defense of Obama’s ‘Strategic Patience’ on North Korea

Newsweek Korea cover 2

Newsweek Korea asked me to participate in a cover story debate on Obama’s strategic patience. A friend of mine wrote against it; I wrote in defense. Here is the Korean language text at the NWK website. Below is my original English language version.

In brief I argue that NK is so hard to pin down, that big strategies never work with it, provoke North Korea into lashing out, and raise impossible expectations on democratic decision-makers. So Obama is acting responsibly, IMO, by not promising more than he can deliver and by not giving a reason for NK to act out.

After 20+ years of negotiating on more or less the same topics, it should be pretty obvious that NK is insistent on not being placed in some box by outsiders. It will not be treated as some technocratic ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ by a conference of experts, like global warming or something. And it will lash out if necessary to remind us of that. Hence, I argue for ‘muddling through,’ and that we should stop expecting our policy-makers to have some great NK strategy that will fix the issue. That’s not gonna happen. We all know that. We just have to wait for China to stop paying NK’s bills. Until then, all the sweeping declarations (‘agreed framework,’ ‘sunshine’,’ the ‘axis of evil,’ the current big idea du jour of ‘trust’) are rather pointless and raise impossible expectations among voters in SK, the US, and Japan. Let’s be a little more honest about what we can expect from North Korea.

Here we go:

“A staple of the political and journalistic commentary on North Korea is that a ‘strategy’ is required, some overarching vision of how to deal with the North. Politicians in Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo are frequently criticized for their lack of clarity or vision, poor understanding of the regime, inability to direct events, weak responses to provocations, and so on. In the United States, conservatives, and neo-conservatives specifically, have long made this accusation against President Obama.

On the right, a ‘strategy’ usually means a pathway to the eventual collapse of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Southern-led unification of the peninsula. On the left, this is frequently understood as some kind of grand bargain, a plan to achieve a long-term stable peace between the two Koreas.

Both approaches have much to recommend them. The temptation to strike a deal with the North and end the dangerous, decades-long confrontation is high, as recent revelations of President Roh’s NLL proposals suggest. Conversely, the appeal of regime collapse is also clear: North Korea is probably the worst violator of human rights on the planet right now and runs a frightening, semi-theocratic cult of personality that seems drawn straight from 1984. The sooner this last totalitarian tyranny is gone, the happier the 23 million imprisoned North Koreans will be.

Indeed, defining a ‘strategy’ toward North Korea has become something of a ritual for incoming South Korean and US presidents. The new occupant declares the bankruptcy of his/her predecessor’s approach: Kim Dae Jung sought “sunshine;” George W. Bush put North Korea on an “axis of evil;” Park Guen Hye seeks a “trustpolitik.” A blue-ribbon commission is appointed to conduct a ‘top to bottom’ review of policy toward North Korea. A new position paper or report is issued. The think-tank community in Washington and Seoul weighs in. TV interviews are given. Detailed power-point presentations are rolled out, making the case for the new policy to analysts, academics, soldiers, and the media. In my own time in Korea, I have been to several of such sessions. I am always amazed at the level of detail about how the North Korean People’s Army would be demobilized, how Northern nuclear reactors would be decommissioned, how public services would be extended into North Korea, and so on. I lived in Germany in the early 1990s, and unification there was thrown together on the fly. By contrast, Korea is vastly more prepared intellectually and politically (if not financially or in public opinion) for unification. Koreans can be proud of all this good work.

But unfortunately, these sorts of long-range agendas – appealing as they may be to our sense of order or logic in policy – regularly collide with unpredictable reality of North Korean behavior, particularly its strident unwillingness to be put into the boxes and categories outsiders place on it. Despite their grand visions, almost every South Korean and US president has been forced eventually into what the American political scientist Charles Lindblom once called “muddling through” in dealing with North Korea.

Essentially this means pragmatism and management in the place of grand bargains and final solutions. Large, thorny problems such as the violent, 65-year inter-Korean division inevitably generate so much complexity and distrust that total solutions become nearly impossible to broker. Unforeseen details, implications, and dangers arise that hamper the move to resolve everything at a single stroke. Because everything is up for resolution at one moment, interested parties of every variety on all sides place great pressure on the final deal, making it hard for policy-makers to strike compromises that are acceptable both domestically and internationally. Inevitably then, small steps and limited deals take the place of attractive, but ultimately infeasible, big answers. By way of example, this also characterizes such fraught international relationships as Israel and the Arab states, or India and Pakistan. This is not unusual.

If “muddling through” seems messy and uninspiring, it is. But it also more honestly characterizes US and Southern engagement with North Korea than periodic, sweeping proclamations, and that should be admitted. Consider the following examples: The Sunshine Policy is the archetype of the left-wing vision for the Korean problem. Yet by the final years of President Roh’s term, it became increasingly apparent that the North did not intend to meaningful change despite Southern charity. The North was also revealed to have continued its nuclear program throughout this period. Seoul’s conservatives leapt to decry Roh’s ‘lack of understanding’ of the ‘real nature’ of the Northern regime, and so on. Roh consequently toned down his anti-American rhetoric and ended up managing North Korea more pragmatically.

Similarly, but from the right, President Lee came in determined to unwind the Sunshine Policy and take a hawkish stance against the Korean member of the “axis of evil.” But Lee too was ultimately forced to climb down from this position and pursue a pragmatic management style. This time, it was the Korean left who chastised the president’s ideology as reckless and out of touch. After the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeong shelling, Lee’s posture suggested South Korean counterstrikes, and the conservative press was supportive. Yet in the face of Southern vulnerability to Northern retaliation in heavily populated Kyeong-gi, Lee (wisely) choose not to bomb North Korea. Like Roh, Lee’s rhetoric softened in his final years.

Even President Park’s “trustpolitik” notion has already collided with North Korean reality. The North’s welcome to her presidency and her softer line was to provoke the worst war crisis since 1953; to ‘trust’ North Korea today after that would be downright naive. And this model applies to American presidents too; President Bush’s macho “axis of evil” talk disappeared by 2006, as it became increasingly evident that US neo-conservative rhetoric was a driver of Northern nuclearization. Bill Clinton first considered warring against North Korea, then u-turned to the Agreed Framework, which in turn fell apart.

In each case, big ideas and grand visions about dealing with the North lead to impossible positions that South Korean and American officials had to abandon; pragmatism triumphed over ideology. All the power-points and projected time-lines disappeared before the reality that North Korea is far more stable than we wish to admit, frequently unpredictable, genuinely dangerous, and probably intent on disrupting American/Southern grand strategies for the peninsula. North Korea does not want to be a ‘problem,’ like global warming or free-trade, to be ‘handled’ by some conference of technical experts. Respect and prestige are central to regime identity; when I visited North Korea, the guides were relentless in their presentation of North Korea’s achievements and the awesomeness of the Kim family. Hence ‘strategies’ that promise to ‘solve’ the North Korea ‘problem’ almost certainly smack of condescension and arrogance to a regime hyper-sensitive to its honor and sovereignty. North Korea’s unpredictability – its willingness to gin-up crises seemingly out of the blue – is well-known and has repeatedly sunk the grand strategies sketched above. This is almost certainly not a coincidence. Disruption forces the South and US to pay attention to the North, focuses global media attention on this otherwise backward regime, and gives the North the respect and consideration it seeks as an independent, sovereign state, rather than as a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved.’

Does this mean we should give up planning North Korean scenarios and simply muddle through whatever they throw at us? Not entirely. Unification will happen one day. China will eventually tire of supporting North Korea. Increasingly, China is confronted with either bailing-out North Korea indefinitely, with little promise that the North will do its bidding in any case, or facing the militarization of the US ‘pivot’ to Asia. At some point the costs of propping up North will outweigh the benefits of perpetually aggravating the Americans and Japanese. When that happens and Chinese aid ceases – in the next two decades, I would guess – North Korea will collapse. At that time, all the voluminous research mentioned above will be useful; again, Korea is vastly better prepared for unification than Germany was.

However, the regular effort to find a ‘big-bang’ solution to the North Korean issue is almost certainly a false promise to US, South Korean, and Japanese voters, and very likely provocative to Pyongyang. Such talk inevitably leads voters and pundits to unreasonable expectations, and then to blame fumbling politicians for their ‘lack of vision’ and so forth regarding North Korea. Yet outsiders’ ability to extract a grand bargain from the North is low. North Korea is opaque, erratic, and has survived extraordinary turmoil. After decades of failed engagement, it should be obvious that our ability to predict it or channel its behavior is minimal, and that our efforts to do so will almost certainly be met with determined Northern resistance. The best we can do is manage the North on a provisional basis, pushing through its outbursts, defending against its most extreme behavior, and seeking to avoid a genuine military confrontation that could kill hundreds of thousands if not more.

By this more fair and reasonable measure of “muddling through,” most Korean presidents have done very well. Lee Myung-Bak, for example, rode in on a wave of resentment over the bad deal for South Korea that the Sunshine Policy had become. He had strong hawkish ideological predilections, buttressed by the hawkish Korean foreign policy community and US neo-conservatism. He nevertheless beat back the right’s insistence on post-Yeonpyeong airstrikes when he realized that he might well provoke a war. That stand-down, which seems so wise in retrospect, took courage at the time. That may not seem like much of an achievement, but only because Korea did not experience a major conflict. That is to Lee’s credit.

Viewed in the light of the inevitable pragmatism North Korea forces on outsiders, President Obama’s ‘strategic patience’ approach takes on a new light. First, it is honest and prescient. Rather than declaring a sweeping ‘vision’ for Northeast Asia which he would later drop under Northern obstruction, Obama choose simply to wait for the North. Instead of commanding the North to change and inciting an inevitable counter-provocation, Obama is playing the long-game. The pivot to Asia is raising the cost of China’s alliance with the North, while managing cautiously the reality of North Korean threats. Neo-conservatives accuse Obama of weakness and “leading from behind,” but of course, George Bush dropped his talk of the “axis of evil” and “moral clarity” in 2006 to negotiate with the North and muddle through. Obama is simply dropping that first, impossibly idealistic and time-wasting step.

Second, strategic patience manages expectations responsibly. Big visions often create impossible hopes. Bill Clinton’s Agreed Framework was to stop nuclear weaponization. The Sunshine Policy was supposed to end the Korean conflict. The axis of evil was to bring about regime change. President Lee said unification was imminent. The Six Party Talks were to denuclearize the peninsular. None of this happened. So Obama’s pragmatic wait-and-see attitude is politically responsible. He is not promising more than he can deliver.

Third, it encourages prudence. The genuine commitment of Kim Dae Jung to peace in Korea was inspiring, while George Bush met Kang Chol-Hwan and was genuinely moved by the human rights plight of North Koreans. Yet in both cases, their zeal led to policy excesses that had to be walked back in time. In Kim’s case, we know now how disappointed he was at Kim Jong Il’s unresponsiveness to ‘sunshine.’ In Bush’s case, his moral fervor caused major dissension in the US-South Korean alliance and encouraged the North Koreans to nuclearize. Eventually, Bush had to make a humiliating policy u-turn. By contrast, strategic patience deals with North Korea as it stubbornly, persistently is, not as we may wish it to be.

If this sounds like cold realism, it is only because North Korea presents few other options at this point. North Korea is not going away, no matter how much we wish it so. Nor is it likely that North Korea wants a grand bargain to ‘solve’ peninsular problems. There have been so many outreaches, initiatives, conferences, meetings, summits, talks, and so on for so long now, that if Pyongyang was genuinely interested in big-bang deal, one would have been struck already.

Instead, “muddling through” recognizes the value of caution and baby-steps given how dangerous North Korea is. Since 1953, North Korea has repeatedly proved its willingness to use force against the South. We have no way of knowing how North Korea would respond to a South Korean counterstrike, such as that suggested after Yeonpyeong. North Korea does follow not even the most basic international norms. Its human rights record is worse than the Taliban. The regime watched as almost one million of its citizens starved. It sells narcotics, commits insurance fraud, and counterfeits. It keeps close to a million soldiers in the Pyongyang-Wonsan corridor. The heavy concentration of South Korea’s population – over 50% – in Kyeonggi makes Northern blackmail (the ‘Seoul as a sea of fire’ threat) very easy and Southern retaliation hugely risky. The military is hugely influential and eats up perhaps 30% of GDP, making it the most militarized state on the planet. We understand very little about how decisions are made in Pyongyang. With the death of Kim Jong Il, we are not really sure where decision-making authority now lies. We do not what the flashpoints or benchmarks are for Chinese military support for North Korea should South Korea use force against the North. On top of all this, North Korea is now a proven nuclear power.

This list of constraints is so severe that every president of South Korea and the US has been forced, in time, into the “muddling through” pragmatism described here. North Korea is simply too dangerous, too unpredictable, and South Korea too vulnerable to permit inflexible strategies. Eventually, prudently managing the North Korean tangle intrudes over impossibly idealistic efforts to solve it. This honesty is the ultimate wisdom of strategic patience, however grim and uninspiring that may seem.”

12 thoughts on “My ‘Newsweek Korea’ Cover Story: A Defense of Obama’s ‘Strategic Patience’ on North Korea

  1. Good points well made, especially how both right and left idealists have been forced into muddling through regardless.

    I think for the US “strategic patience” is desirable both for the reasons you give and because there is no way the US can in any way help improve circumstances (without first withdrawing from the peninsula because their presence in SK is the strongest justification for NK’s world view and behavior). For South Korea (and ideally China), however, I believe there has to be a greater moral obligation to actively undo the Pyongyang kleptocracy because of the incredible scale of wanton human suffering being perpetuated immediately across their borders. Obviously the question is how, but strategic patience by itself cannot be morally acceptable.

    Although I understand his domestic politics was utterly corrupt, Lee Myung-Bak’s NK policy, ending unconditional aid and actively raising the human rights agenda, was most appropriate post-Sunshine and nuclear tests.


  2. Frankly, from a strictly machieavellian point of view, time is not exactly working in favor of North Korea, and since they have already passed the Nuclear threashold, there is no particular urgency to escalate things.
    Given that North Korea, for all of its autarky-juche propaganda, is in practice a quite (independent minded, Pyeonjang has been using “cultural distances” and “unpredictable behaviour” to prevent Soviet and later Chinese influence for quite some time now) dependent entity, the best long term plan for unification would be to improve ties with Russia and China.
    Russia could perhaps be won over with primarily economic incentives (their Far East is “threatened” by the US, China and Japan. The threat by a united Korea somewhat beholden to Russia would not be very big), China would not accede to a unification as long as South Korea remains an American Client.


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