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COINless, CNAS Takes on North Korea

North Korea hasn’t really been a Center for a New American Security core competency — there’s little application for the stability-operations end of the conflict spectrum there — but Ambassador Wendy Sherman, a confidante of Secretary of State Clinton, is running a panel on the recent provocations by North Korea. “We are at a moment unlike all of the other moments that have come before,” Sherman says. “What we have here is in many ways a critical inflection point that I hope does not become a tipping point.” She hopes to return to dialogue “at the right moment,” has meaningful consequences for North Korean aggression, without “tipping over into a catastrophic situation.”

What’s different now? “Much of what North Korea’s doing has much more to do with their internal affairs than their external position,” Sherman says. Preserving the Kim as Kim Jong-il’s succession approaches is more important than international isolation. “We all have to be extremely well calibrated, we have to be very patient,” and the U.S. needs a united international response so the North’s “impunity… will have consequences.” Tough talk from the U.S. may be emotionally gratifying, but it “can lead to an escalation that can easily get out of control… I’m for great care and calibration for how we proceed.”

CNAS’ Abe Denmark and Nirav Patel have a new paper out, “No Illusions,” proposing some North Korea options. (With apologies, I haven’t read it yet.) The goal is to “over time reshape the status quo,” using “sanctions and what we call on-ramps” to increase strengthen U.S. alliances in northeast Asia, deter North Korean aggression, and denuclearize North Korea in the long run, Denmark explains. He rules out military strikes and regime changes, which in the former case wouldn’t work and in the latter case would create an “unprecedented” humanitarian crisis. Focus on long-term U.S. interests, not tactics to get North Korea back to negotiations, such as “tak[ing] North Korea off the state sponsors of terrorism list.”

The United States has to take a leading role, not subsume its position to the International Atomic Energy Agency. China “is going to play a very important role,” since it claims 80 percent of North Korean trade, but the American strategy shouldn’t “hinge on [Chinese] acquiescence.”

So what to do? Strengthen U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan. Prevent regional escalation in response to provocative North Korean behavior. Get the North back to nuclear negotiations.

Patel talks about how to get there. (Andrew Exum told him to deliver his whole presentation “in the Kim Jong-il voice from ‘Team America,’” but he wisely declines.) Reassure the allies, engage deeper in northeast and southeast Asia, and coordinate policy with Japan and South Korea. Keep talking about the U.S. “conventional and nonconventional deterrent” so South Korea doesn’t resume its dormant independent nuclear weapons program or Japan bolsters its defense capabilities. “More robust sanctions, interdiction efforts,” and messages “both private and public” to get the North back to talks, and indicating to the Chinese that they can’t be North Korea’s “lifeline.”

Then comes a “five party dialogue” as an institutional mechanism, without North Korea, since the North is ceaselessly hostile to the six-party talks. It’ll be a mechanism to coordinate policy toward the North and show them the costs of international isolation. Sanctions to “alter the regime’s calculation” but denying “luxury” goods that the North imports (wines, pork fat) will be one such component of what the five-party dialogue coordinates.

Rather than talk while tamping pressure down, Patel wants to “maintain pressure while continuing to test North Korea … on food security and other humanitarian issues.”

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