US 'strategic patience' policy toward North Korea not working, analysts say
North Korea’s development of missile technology and the production of plutonium and uranium used for nuclear weapons have advanced unabated under President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience,” analysts say.
“If you straight-line into the future, the threat is going to get worse,” said Joel S. Wit, a former State Department official who manages the 38 North website run by Johns Hopkins University’s US-Korea Institute in Washington, D.C., where he is a visiting scholar.
“It’s gotten worse since 2009 when the Obama administration took office, and it’s going to keep getting worse and worse and worse.”
He ticked off a list of recent developments by North Korea: a series of rocket engine tests for intercontinental missiles, a doubling of the size of a uranium-enrichment facility, the restart of a plutonium production reactor and the construction of another reactor that appears to be aimed for civilian use but could have military applications as well.
During a Pentagon news conference on Oct. 24, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti — head of U.S. Forces Korea — said he personally believed North Korea possesses a functioning miniaturized nuclear warhead that could be launched on an intercontinental missile to reach the United States. Although most analysts say North Korea still has a lot of work ahead to be able to launch a nuclear weapon with any accuracy and the ability to survive re-entry, Scaparrotti said he has to plan for worst-case scenarios.
For the past half-century, the divided Korean peninsula has existed uneasily under the 1953 armistice between the North and United Nations forces, primarily from the United States and South Korea. With no formal peace agreement, the North and South remain suspicious of each other, and periods of rapprochement have quickly given way to deadly skirmishes.
The North froze its nuclear program under the so-called Agreed Framework bargain with the U.S. in 1994, under which the North was to receive assistance in building nuclear power reactors that do not lend themselves to production of fissile material suitable for bombs. For a decade the North made few advances in that technology, but the agreement broke down in 2003.
The North has since publicized its intent to become a fully nuclear-armed nation, with three underground tests so far with increasingly powerful yields.
Obama seemed prepared to engage North Korea diplomatically after taking office in early 2009, but within a couple months, the rogue nation had conducted nuclear and rocket tests, leading the administration to seek sanctions rather than negotiations.
At the 2009 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described the North’s hoary routine of creating a crisis and then exacting a price from the U.S. to return to the status quo. He said he was “tired of buying the same horse twice” and thought there were “perhaps other ways to try and get the North Koreans to change their approach.”
By the end of that year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was articulating the administration’s policy of “strategic patience in close coordination with our six-party allies” in regard to North Korea.
Strategic patience has fundamentally meant no engagement with North Korea, even as the administration has heralded its military-diplomatic rebalance to the Pacific.
The North’s interest in some form of re-engagement with the U.S. may have been behind its insistence that it would to release two imprisoned Americans but only if Washington sent a high-level official to retrieve them. Obama dispatched retired Lt. Gen. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. He left Pyongyang over the weekend with the two Americans but without meeting top leader Kim Jong Un.
Obama said Monday during a visit to Beijing that Clapper’s meetings were “not high-level policy discussions” and did not touch on Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations. He added that “when and if” North Korea agrees to pursue denuclearization, the U.S. will be “very open” to having discussions.
“It’s not a strategy,” Wit said of the U.S. “strategic patience” policy. “It’s serving North Korea’s interest, not ours. You could argue that North Korea’s strategy of strategic patience makes sense. It’s working for them.”
“I don’t personally think that strategic patience is a very good idea if by that we mean we will not talk to the North Koreans until they show a willingness to denuclearize the peninsula,” said Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. “The possible dangers of North Korea are great. Whether they have nuclear weapons or not, it’s a very delicate and dangerous situation, and we need to engage them diplomatically — if only to find out more what’s in their heads. Our unwillingness to do that or our demand of preconditions before we even sit down at the table with them, I think, is unwise.”
Meanwhile, North Korea’s proliferation of fissile material production continues, a foremost concern among some experts.
North Korea could have multiple hidden centrifuge facilities used for enriching uranium, said Dr. William Wieninger, an expert on weapons of mass destruction at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.
“We know they have one, but we can’t be sure they don’t have others,” he said. “They’re relatively easy to hide.
“Uranium is much easier to fashion into a crude improvised device than plutonium so the more uranium they produce, the greater the risk of some kind of terrorist getting hold of it, whether that’s because the regime smuggles it out to make money or if the regime collapses and there’s a bit of chaos.”
North Korea has “basically sold every weapons system it’s ever produced,” said Victor Cha, a senior adviser and Korea Chair at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
The country tried to sell Syria a nuclear reactor, which the Israelis destroyed with an airstrike in 2007. It has provided missile technology to Pakistan and Iran, the latter of which had sought to develop nuclear arms for decades before agreeing last year to scale back those efforts in exchange for relief from economic sanctions by the U.S. and five other major powers.
Some analysts, however, are pessimistic that North Korea would be willing to make as large a concession as Iran.
“Nobody, I think, seriously thinks that North Korea can be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons right now,” said James M. Acton, a physicist and co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, it’s not impossible that modest caps could be negotiated to slow down progress, he said.
Cha said he believed North Korea would gladly welcome a new round of negotiations with the U.S. — on its own terms in a scenario where it is accepted as a nuclear state and then negotiate “on the margins” while receiving benefits.
But the political reality is that negotiations won’t become a front-burner issue for the administration until “North Korea actually demonstrates something that people can point to as being a miniaturized nuclear test or something like that,” he said.