"And know this: There will be no rewards for provocations. Those days are over. To the leaders of Pyongyang I say, this is the choice before you. This is the decision that you must make. Today we say, Pyongyang, have the courage to pursue peace and give a better life to the people of North Korea."
That's President Obama speaking in South Korea on March 26, 2012. He was responding to word that the government of North Korea would launch a "satellite" sometime in April in violation of a host of previous agreements to discontinue such work. The President's words were strong, brave and unequivocal.
They were also probably meaningless to the rulers of North Korea.
Have you ever had the misfortune to visit friends or relatives who seem incapable of exercising any real control or discipline over their small children? Ever sat through endless hours of meaningless threats of consequences that never materialize while the house around you is dismantled and the kids run amok? If so, then you have a really good idea of how American policy toward North Korea works.
The North Koreans act out. We stomp our feet and tell them to be good "or else." Then we cave in, grant a whole series of concessions and the cycle begins anew.
In fact, it has been only weeks since we concluded the previous round of such "negotiation." In late February 2012, the North Koreans agreed to a moratorium on long-range missile tests, nuclear tests and nuclear activity. It also agreed to allow international nuclear inspectors back on its soil. In response the United States agreed to provide 240,000 metric tons of food aid to North Korea. The ink was hardly dry on that agreement when the North Koreans trotted out their announcement regarding a proposed "satellite" launch. The planned launch, of course, has nothing to do with satellites. It is a continuation of North Korean efforts to develop the capacity to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles.
For decades after the end of the Korean War in 1953, the U.S. policy toward North Korea was very straightforward. We focused on deterring a North Korean attack on South Korea, and, as part of that policy, we imposed a freeze on virtually all forms of contact with North Korea. Then in the 1990s, in response to perceived North Korean advances in nuclear and missile technology and widespread famine in North Korea, we changed that policy. We began to provide assistance, in a variety of forms, to the Communist government in Pyongyang.
That aid, to the North Korean government with which we are still technically at war, has totaled $1.2 billion to date. Much of that aid has been in the form of food, but not all. Six hundred million dollars in energy assistance has been provided. Four hundred million in fuel oil has been sent to North Korea. Large quantities of medical supplies have been shipped.
The North Koreans quickly understood the implications of what had happened. They had been rewarded for their behavior. The way to guarantee continued provision of aid was to continue to behave badly and to threaten U.S. security.
In 1993 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered discrepancies in North Korea reporting its nuclear program and demanded to be allowed to inspect suspect facilities inside North Korea. North Korea refused and announced it would withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The resulting negotiations and discussions continued off-and-on for almost 18 months during which time North Korea continued to threaten to refuse to cooperate further with any international efforts to monitor its nuclear program.
Ultimately, in October of 1994, the United States and North Korea adopted the "Agreed Framework." Pursuant to this agreement, Pyongyang would freeze and eventually eliminate its nuclear facilities. In return the United States would give North Korea two light water nuclear reactors and would make shipments of heavy fuel oil to North Korea until such time as the reactors were complete and ready to generate power. The agreement also called for full normalization of political and economic relations between the two countries.
In 1998 North Korea decided it was time to demand attention again. It launched a three-stage Taepo Dong 1 rocket with a range of 1,500-2,000 kilometers. The flight path of that rocket passed directly over Japan. A few months after the launch CIA Director Tenet testified to the Senate that the Taepo could give North Korea the ability to hit Alaska and Hawaii. He also noted that the North Korean's Taepo Dong 2 missile could possibly hit the continental United States.
Within months of the launch a U.S. envoy traveled to North Korea on behalf of President Clinton and offered to lift U.S. sanctions on North Korea, normalize relations and grant a security guarantee if the North Koreans would stop ballistic missile development and address lingering concerns about their nuclear program. The next year, North Korea agreed to a moratorium on testing long-range missiles in exchange for a partial lifting of U.S. sanctions. This was followed by further relaxation of sanctions. Trade with North Korea in a wide range of commercial and consumer goods was permitted and restrictions on investment were eased as well.
In December 2002, North Korea began the cycle all over again. It informed the IAEA that it was restarting one of the reactors it had previously shut down. North Korea demanded that that IAEA remove its seals and surveillance equipment from the reactor. When the IAEA did not act, North Korea broke the seals and confiscated the surveillance equipment at the site. North Korea then expelled all IAEA personnel from the country. Intelligence estimates indicated that once reactivated the reactor would produce enough plutonium to make one atomic bomb every year.
In January 2003, North Korea announced it was leaving the NPT. Shortly thereafter the North Korean ambassador to China suggested that Pyongyang might resume testing long-range missiles. In July 2006, North Korea test-fired seven ballistic missiles. In October 2006, North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test.
The United States responded to all of these provocations by agreeing to resume negotiations with North Korea. In 2007, yet another series of agreements was reached between the United States and North Korea. North Korea agreed, again, to shut down its nuclear facilities. In exchange, the United States agreed to resume shipments of fuel oil, to discuss economic and energy cooperation and to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. The United States also released millions of dollars of North Korean money that had been frozen in bank accounts inside the U.S.
Despite North Korean assurances regarding a moratorium on missile testing, in September 2008, Jane's Defence Weekly reported that North Korea had nearly completed a new missile test site on its western coast near the village of Pongdong-ni. Shortly thereafter North Korea stated that it would resume activity at a nuclear reprocessing facility on its soil. Several months later, North Korea added that it was preparing to launch a "satellite." The launch of a modified form of the Taepo Dong 2 ballistic missile took place on April 5, 2009.
Within days following the launch North Korea advised it was withdrawing from all of its prior agreements in regard to its nuclear and missile programs. In May 2009, North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test. In 2010 North Korea sank a South Korean naval vessel and shelled South Korean territory.
In July 2011, after two full years of the North Korean provocations outlined above, the United States resumed negotiations with North Korea regarding its nuclear program. As part of those discussions, the United States signaled its willingness to discuss economic aid to North Korea and normalization of economic and political relations. Those discussions "culminated" only weeks ago with the announcement by the United States that it would resume shipments of food aid to North Korea.
If we are frustrated with the behavior of the North Koreans, we have only ourselves to blame. They have learned, as spoiled children will, that in the end we always give in and that they are inevitably rewarded for their bad behavior with economic aid, cash and other incentives. We have trained them to behave this way.
What we need, of course, is a policy that takes precisely the opposite track'one, which offers North Korea not attention and rewards, but isolation and silence. We should suspend all discussions with them and make it a precondition for the resumption of any negotiations that they take serious, concrete steps to dismantle their nuclear and missile programs. We should discontinue all aid of any kind, including food aid. We should maintain the most rigorous sanctions imaginable to strangle the North Korean regime.
North Korea is a mad Stalinist regime barely capable of feeding its own people and avoiding collapse. We should not be in the business of perpetuating that horror nor of relieving the inevitable social pressures building inside of it. A policy of complete isolation will certainly mean hardship for the North Korean people in the short term. What they really need is not surplus American food, but freedom and the ability to build a better tomorrow.
We've tried speaking in a soft voice and asking the child to behave. It's time to impose some consequences for the North Korean nuclear brat.