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What’s Next for North Korea?

SOURCE: AP/Ahn Young-joon

South Koreans at the Seoul Railway Station watch a television broadcasting on North Korea's reported missle and nuclear tests.

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For most countries, isolation from the international community and global economy would be a stiff sentence for ignoring the consequences of testing another atomic weapon illegally, as North Korea did this past weekend. Few domestic economies could survive without access to international markets, but North Korea, of course, is no ordinary country.

Isolation helps sustain North Korea’s national ideology, known as juche. This ideology, first articulated by Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s late founding leader and the father of Kim Jong Il, stresses self-reliance and national independence. In the North Korean political system, this is literally the word of god, as the elder Kim is revered as a divine entity.

Juche, however, would be unsustainable if the kind of isolation were imposed that could actually hurt North Korea by threatening the survival of its ruthless regime. An energy embargo by China, for example, would do the trick, except that China doesn’t want to see North Korea collapse, with all the massive economic, social and national security problems that would pose for Beijing.

That’s why threatening North Korea with isolation—as successive U.S. administrations have done in response to provocative actions—is not likely to fundamentally change North Korea’s calculations about whether to give up its nuclear program, or China’s extreme reluctance to force the issue. That’s also why engagement and regional diplomacy remain the best option for dealing with North Korea.

The Obama administration should continue to seek North Korea’s return to the negotiating table. The shape of the table—whether there are two seats or six—should be dictated by whatever is most likely to yield results. The advantage of the so called six-party format—comprised of the United States, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea—is that it integrates all regional players in the process. Bilateral talks are not inconsistent with this approach if the six-party approach has outlived its usefulness.

Either way, though, there is simply no substitute for diplomacy. Not talking to North Korea won’t make the problem go away. Indeed, North Korea is less likely to proliferate when it is engaged in a negotiating process than when it is not.

The Obama administration and its partners in the six-party process also should continue to offer incentives and disincentives, conditioned as always on concrete changes in North Korean behavior. Although the long-term goal must remain the complete denuclearization of North Korea, it is essential that the administration strive to achieve the intermediate goal of preventing North Korea’s stockpile of fissile material from growing.

This may require giving North Korea incentives. Some loud critics of negotiating with North Korea at all will decry this as rewarding bad behavior. They are wrong. Every day North Korea is not producing more plutonium is good for the United States and its allies and partners. The administration must also continue to work with allies and partners in the region and beyond to prevent North Korea from selling its nuclear technology and missiles.

It is too early to tell whether North Korea’s nuclear test will convince China to do more in this regard. Clearly, Beijing should. Its support for a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the test is a promising sign. Japan is growing jitterier by the day, which is clearly not in China’s national security interests. And South Korea, too, is increasingly fed up with their northern neighbor’s nuclear shenanigans, having recently elected a new president who campaigned on getting tough with Pyongyang.

For its part, the Obama administration is in the midst of a formal Nuclear Posture Review to review the roles and missions for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. North Korea’s most recent test reinforces the need for the United States to actively consult and engage with allies about the role of the U.S. nuclear deterrent in providing assurance to allies. After all, Japan and South Korea both depend on the U.S. nuclear shield so that they don’t have to develop atomic weapons of their own.

Predictably, conservative missile-defense theologians are trying to use North Korea’s test to attack the Obama administration’s missile defense budget, which cuts funding for programs such as the Airborne Laser and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor. These critics also are also unhappy with the administration’s position that the system proposed for European missile defense must be successfully flight-tested under operationally realistic conditions before procurement can proceed.

They should stop whining. What the administration has proposed is cutting programs that don’t work and investing in programs that are proven or promising. This budget will yield greater security returns than the theologians’ ideological preference for cherished programs.

Nobody ever said dealing with North Korea would be easy. It never has been, and probably never will be. But there is no other choice: Ignoring North Korea won’t make it go away.

Andy Grotto is a Senior National Security Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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