These days when North Korea conducts a nuclear or missile test, the preferred metaphor in Washington is to compare Kim Jong Il to a spoiled child. President George W. Bush used to say the North's "Dear Leader" was like a baby throwing food on the floor in the hope that the adults would pick it up. When asked about North Korea during a recent trip to the region, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that as a mother she was already familiar with small children acting out to gain attention. Meanwhile, foreign-policy experts have fought over diplomatic tactics for a decade: Should we engage Pyongyang bilaterally? Multilaterally? Not at all? Journalism's contribution has been a series of depressingly accurate but not terribly prescriptive accounts of how often the U.S. and Asian governments have been reduced to internal squabbling over North Korea policy.
Lost among all the ridiculing of Kim Jong Il and the fights over the shape of the negotiating table is one unmistakable fact: North Korea has deliberately made itself more dangerous over the past fifteen years. It has increased its missile arsenal, the capabilities of its weapons, and its chemical, biological and nuclear programs. And now the rapid physical demise of Kim Jong Il adds a new element of uncertainty.
It is possible that the world will be blessed with a peaceful collapse of one of history's most horrific dictatorships and that 23 million suffering North Koreans will gradually unify with their prosperous, democratic cousins in the South. But I wouldn't hold your breath. We are more likely to pass through three dangerous stages with North Korea before arriving at that long-desired end on the peninsula. We are already entering the first phase: a North Korea armed with weapons it is brandishing, this time not to barter for food or gain attention, but instead to alter the security structure of Northeast Asia by using the threat of further proliferation to demand recognition as a nuclear-weapons state. Engaging with North Korea now will likely be volatile and unpredictable as a collective military leadership struggles to sustain internal discipline and external leverage in a post-Kim Jong Il world. The second step will take place when the regime inevitably begins to collapse and the United States and its allies and partners in the region face the prospect of loose nuclear weapons and massive humanitarian crises. And then there is the closing act: settling the terms for a unified Korea; a perilous geostrategic game to say the least. All great powers will be competing for dominance of the peninsula--as they always have.
The United States has the capacity and the relationships in Asia to manage all three stages of North Korea's dangerous demise, but it will require a careful and disciplined balancing of diplomatic engagement, sustained containment and joint regional preparation for unification. Our North Korea policy doesn't need to be the losing battle of more pessimistic imaginings.
North Korea has long understood the value of a nuclear deterrent. Convincing the regime to abandon decades worth of successful policy this late in the game will be nigh impossible. At every turn of negotiations--from the first North-South denuclearization accord of 1992, through the infamous Agreed Framework of the Clinton administration, on to the six-party talks of Bush and finally the Obama administration's hopefully short-lived promise of unconditional engagement--Pyongyang has continued to ratchet up tensions, break negotiated …