It is a familiar ritual when despotic regimes give way to a young rulerhope for reform, followed by disappointment. The case for North Korea and Kim Jong Eun was never promising. After his ascension early this year, following his father’s death, sundry Western observers found hope in the fact that the young Kim had studied in the West, and that he purged some top military officials soon after taking power.
North Korea’s planned test launch of a long-range missile this month should put those misguided hopes to rest permanently. The long-standing policies of the United States and its allies toward North Korea should be retired, too.
Since 1994, Washington policy makers have assumed that North Korea could be induced to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles through some combination of carrots (oil, food, etc.) and sticks (United Nations sanctions, prohibitions, etc.). For 18 years this guiding principle has endured despite North Korea’s record of providing only evidence that it doesn’t work.
North Korea’s missile-launch plan is no surprise. For weeks the regime has been conducting preparatory activities at the Dongchang-ri launch facility in the country’s northwest. While Pyongyang says that the missile will carry a “working satellite” designed for peaceful purposes, it has made similar claims before. The U.S., South Korea, Japan and others now completely discount such claims, seeing that North Korea is attempting to master the technology necessary to deliver a nuclear warhead to a far-distant target.
The country first tried to launch a long-range missile in 1998, sending a three-stage rocket over Japan that splashed down in the Sea of Japan before reaching orbit. The regime then launched multistage long-range missiles in July 2006 and March 2009, and it tested nuclear devices soon after those 2006 and 2009 launches.
North Korea engaged in these activities despite their being “proscribed” by various U.N. resolutions. Clearly these resolutions haven’t deterred the Kim family regime from engaging in aggressive activities that it considers matters of national interest. Soon before the death of regime founder Kim Il Sung (Eun’s grandfather) in 1994, his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Il, said at a meeting of the Military Committee of the Workers Party: “Nuclear weapons are Chosun“the North Korean word for Korea. “If we destroy our nuclear program, we may as well destroy ourselves.” (This quote comes from an interview I conducted in 2011 with Kim Duk-hong, a 16-year veteran of the Korean Workers Party Central Committee and one of the highest-ranking North Korean officials ever to seek political asylum in South Korea.)
Western observers might have hoped for change upon Kim Jong Eun’s rise to power this year, but he showed from the beginning that he was wedded to his father’s policies. In April, North Korea tested a three-stage, long-range missile. Its disintegration during the first stage was a thorough embarrassment for the new leader. North Korean officials vow to get it right this time.
This month’s promised launch has occasioned frenetic diplomatic activity and official statements of condemnation from many countries. Even China, North Korea’s close ally, expressed “concern“although a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry insisted this month that North Korea is entitled to the peaceful use of outer space.
Perhaps the launch will lead to yet another U.N. Security Council proscription that North Korea will disregard. Or perhaps China will use its Security Council veto to prevent that from happening. Either way, the cries of condemnation and threats of new U.N. action are more of the same as Pyongyang continues to develop its weapons program and grow as a threat to international peace and security.
Any U.S. policy based on carrots and sticks is sure to fail. Worse, by clinging to the hope that Pyongyang can be induced to give up its ambitions for nukes and long-range missiles, government officials are distracted from pursuing policies that might actually manage the increasing danger and enable the people of North Korea to end the Kim dynasty.
Such policies would include using America’s considerable diplomatic and other resources to prevent the Kim family regime from continuing to buy and sell the goods necessary for its weapons programs and other illicit activities. The ultimate goal should be to help bring about the regime’s collapse, not to extract the next promise that Pyongyang can renege on. Washington could more aggressively interfere with suspect shipments to and from North Korea, for example, deny North Korean actors access to international financial institutions, and support the efforts of refugees (in South Korea and elsewhere) to pass information about the Free World to friends and family in North Korea.
It’s time for Western capitals to stop assuming that carrots and sticks matter to the Kim family, and to stop treating the promises of this rogue regime as change we can believe in.