Threats and “Strategic Patience” haven’t worked with North Korea, let’s try serious diplomacy

By Kevin Martin, PeaceVoice

Last week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper surprisingly told a House Intelligence Committee that getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons was probably a “lost cause.” The assessment was not surprising, but rather the candor, an admission the Obama Administration’s policy of “strategic patience” — refusing to negotiate with North Korea and hoping economic sanctions and international isolation would bring it to the negotiating table — has failed.

Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken contradicted Clapper almost immediately, trying to re-assure South Korea, Japan and other regional allies the U.S. has not thrown in the towel, that the U.S. does not accept North Korea’s possessing a nuclear arsenal. In the midst of all this, unofficial talks with the North Korean government were taking place in Malaysia.

“I think the best course would be to test the proposition by some serious engagement in which we see whether their (North Korea’s) legitimate security concerns can be met,” said Robert Gallucci, a participant in the Malaysia talks and lead negotiator of a 1994 disarmament agreement that curbed North Korea’s nuclear program for nearly 10 years. This is a rare admission that North Korea has legitimate concerns, which is welcome.

“We don’t know for sure that negotiations will work, but what I can say with some confidence is that pressure without negotiations won’t work, which is the track we are on right now,” noted Leon Sigal from the New York-based Social Science Research Council. Sigal also took part in the Malaysia talks.

While it is cause for serious concern, no one should be surprised by North Korea’s insistence on maintaining its nuclear arsenal. Tensions in the region are high, and require a serious commitment to diplomacy and disarmament by all parties, rather than recent threats by South Korea to ramp up its military posture. Informal talks with North Korean officials are better than nothing, but no replacement for formal negotiations on a peace treaty to replace the supposedly temporary armistice in place since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Surrounded by far superior militaries (those of the United States, South Korea and Japan) it is no wonder North Korean leaders feel the need to keep their nukes.

Threats against the North have proven a failure. A far cheaper and more effective strategy to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal would include the following:

-negotiate a formal peace treaty to replace the supposedly temporary armistice negotiated in 1953;

-address North Korea’s concerns about the U.S./South Korea/Japan alliance’s aggressive military posture in the region (an end to provocative joint “war games” in and around the peninsula would be a great start);

-restore some credibility to U.S. non-proliferation policy by scrapping plans to “modernize” our entire nuclear weapons enterprise – laboratories, warheads, missiles, bombers and submarines – estimated at $1 trillion over the next 30 years (Predictably, every other nuclear state including North Korea has followed suit in announcing their own plans to “modernize” their arsenals.);

-explore regional peace and security-building measures with other key regional actors including China (without overestimating China’s ability to compel North Korea to denuclearize).

Compounding the problem is our country’s lack of credibility, with North Korea but also globally, on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. The U.S. and other nuclear weapons states are working to undermine plans for the United Nations General Assembly to begin negotiations on a global treaty to ban nuclear weapons, beginning next year. (The exception is North Korea, which last week voted with 122 other countries to support the negotiations. The U.S. and other nuclear states opposed or abstained, but the process will go forward with solid support from a large majority of the world’s countries).

Even worse is the exorbitant nuclear “modernization” plan, which should instead be dubbed The New Nuclear Arms Race (That Nobody Wants Except Weapons Contractors) for the Next Three Decades Proposal.

Resolving tensions over North Korea’s nukes, likely by the next president at this point, will require the same commitment to diplomacy the Obama administration showed in securing the Iran nuclear agreement and opening to Cuba, but we would have much more credibility were we not preaching atomic temperance from a barstool brimming with nuclear weapons.

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