After four years of negotiating in and with North Korea, I cannot say that I have all of the answers to deal with a regime that defies the expectations of rational thinking, but I do have at least one of them: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea leadership, whoever happens to be the leader of the moment, whether Great, Dear, or Supreme, can only be dissuaded from chronically irresponsible behavior and from crossing a so-called red line (i.e., committing a hostile act, such as a military attack) by unambiguous toughness on the part of the interlocutor across the literal or figurative negotiating table.
Such toughness must be undergirded by unmistakable military might and the equally unmistakable, demonstrable will to employ such military power should the red line be crossed. In other words, the essence of deterrence.
However, despite our unequaled military power and the strength of our long-standing military alliance with South Korea, our repeated inaction in providing a meaningful response has made our ability to influence, much less deter, the DPRK’s unconscionable behavior — from the shelling of civilians to the sinking of a foreign warship in international waters — lack any credibility. And year after year, despite such atrocities, we rejoice when the North appears to have been coerced to come back to the negotiating table through the promise of food aid for its starving population.
Prior to its failure, the DPRK claimed its launch of a supposed satellite-carrying missile was justified by its right as a sovereign nation to conduct technical research and advance its space capabilities. If such a multi-stage missile were indeed successful, this capability would be directly translatable to the intercontinental delivery of a nuclear weapon. But beyond that, where is the outrage by the civilized world the resources to develop such a capability are not being used instead to feed the DPRK’s starving masses? And, why — apart from the humanitarian concern that always dilutes our effectiveness in dealing with this tyrannical regime — do we continue to offer food aid in the face of not only bad but utterly irresponsible behavior?
Will we substantively change our tune and our approach if the missile failure is followed by an increasingly likely nuclear weapon test to, presumably, validate the new supreme leader? Our previous track record leads one (and the DPRK) to conclude, “no.”
From 1999-2000, I served as the chief negotiator for the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, or KEDO, the international (U.S., South Korea, Japan, European Union) consortium carrying out the goal of shutting down North Korea’s nuclear reprocessing capabilities under the 1994 U.S.- DPRK Agreed Framework. The North Koreans knew me from my previous service as a U.S. Navy officer and Joint Staff representative to the follow-on Agreed Framework Negotiations, as well as the Four Party Talks (U.S., South Korea, China, North Korea) in Geneva. In leading the KEDO delegation through difficult negotiations, never once did I think our North Korean interlocutors believed I was a civilian; to them, I was still a nuclear submarine captain, and, consequently, there was some credibility to back up my tough negotiating positions. We achieved some unprecedented agreements, but one particular memory keeps coming to mind:
In the summer of 2000, my last time in North Korea, food was meager and tens of thousands were starving. During a break in the negotiations, I remarked to the North Korean translator that, together, we needed to make the Agreed Framework succeed, to ensure a better life and future for our children and grandchildren. She responded, “It is our Dear Leader’s dream that we shall be a great power.”
That statement, clearly, says it all — it did so 12 years ago, and it says it today. It is way past time for the United States, along with our allies, and especially the Republic of Korea, to be tough with this would-be “great power.” We must determine what our response will be to the DPRK’s breaking of promises and otherwise irresponsible behavior. Are we, for example, ready and willing to intercept and destroy the next missile, especially if its trajectory threatens populated areas? If so, preparations, including strategy, tactics and policy, must be made now.
Every knowledgeable commentator mentions the role of China when we wring our hands with frustration at the seeming impossibility of successfully coercing North Korea to act responsibly. Despite its vested interest in avoiding conflict or collapse on its border, China has been unwilling to exert its influence, at least not to an effective degree. It would be interesting to see if a credible stance of strength taken by the United States and South Korea would motivate China to step up to the plate.
Despite our current state of war weariness and fiscal challenges, we cannot afford to let North Korea (or Iran, or any other irresponsible actor) perpetuate behavior that poses an existential threat to the U.S. and the other responsible, civilized nations and societies. Our strategy and our plan must be to weigh the risks, account for them, and then to act, decisively and unmistakably. That is the essence of toughness and deterrence, and it is urgently needed.
• Lemkin is an international aerospace, defense, and energy consultant based in Crownsville, Md. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.