The cause of Friday’s [intlink id=”696733″ type=”post”]sinking of the South Korean naval corvette [/intlink]Cheonan remains unclear. But the ship’s location 10 miles from the North Korean coast when it sank makes the Pyongyang regime a prime suspect. Whether or not responsibility for the deaths of 46 sailors lies with the North Korean government, the potential for it serves as a reminder of the extreme dangers of that regime and the need for firm policies to bring security to the region. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is likely to continue a cycle of bad policy by the U.S. and North Korea’s neighbors.
Pyonyang’s complicity in the sinking of the Cheonan would fit a [intlink id=”368285″ type=”post”]cycle of misconduct that has served Kim Jong-il’s regime[/intlink] well. Kim’s government has followed a now well-worn path of belligerence followed by the reaping of rewards from governments unwilling to punish the regime seriously. For example, the North tested seven ballistic missiles in July 2006, drawing broad condemnation, including a UN Security Council resolution demanding suspension of its missile program. Pyongyang then tested a nuclear weapon in October of that year, drawing similar condemnation.
But just four months after the nuclear test, the U.S. and its negotiating partners agreed to provide North Korea with massive assistance in exchange for a promise to end its nuclear program; a promise that turned out to be empty and unverifiable. The U.S. had reached agreement in the spring of 2008 to provide up to 500,000 metric tons of food under a significantly improved framework that ensured food would reach the North Korean people. This agreement would have remedied past problems of the regime diverting humanitarian food shipments to the military for black market revenues. Pyongyang reneged on the agreement—but not before it pocketed food and energy aid, and surmounted financial sanctions that had been enacted by the U.S. Treasury. In March 2009, the North itself halted all food aid programs and after asking all humanitarian organizations to leave, it began another round of missile testing. This followed a pattern of what happened in the 1990s where North Korea offered to end its nuclear program in return for massive aid under the 1994 Agreed Framework.
The cycle began anew last year, when North Korea tested a nuclear device in May 2009. The UN dutifully issued another resolution. President Obama vowed the U.S. and its allies would “stand up” to North Korea. But little has happened outside of efforts by the Treasury to make life harder on Pyongyang’s money launderers. If the Cheonan was attacked by North Korea, it would fit the pattern by which North Korea continues to ramp up activity to alarm its neighbors and the U.S. and then offers a very expensive fig leaf. In addition to the largesse this has brought Pyongyang over the years, each instance also extends the dictatorship’s military capacity and reinforces its stranglehold over its people, most of whom live on less than 1,700 calories a day.
Pyongyang has strong reasons to believe this cycle could be repeated again. Just last week the State Department voiced its willingness to resume food aid and some international organizations have voiced new concerns about the severe state of malnutrition in the North. It is certain that aid resumption will be put on hold temporarily if North Korean involvement in the Cheonan is indicated, but Pyongyang knows from experience that voices supporting aid will return with the passage of a few months. This argument typically holds that aid should be provided to North Koreans regardless of disagreements with their government, and that it is productive to use aid in a way that enables talks with the regime. However, allowing the North to politicize food, as it would like to do, is the wrong approach and will enable the North Korean regime to continue to survive decades after other Stalinist governments have fallen.
Ultimately, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo need to realize that the North Korean threat can neither be ignored, nor can the regime’s docility be bought with aid. Both of these approaches have been tried repeatedly and left the region in a considerably more unstable position. Instead, the Pacific’s democracies should focus first on military deterrence. Hopefully U.S. allies see this development as a reminder that their near-abroad is far from stable and secured, and that a forward-deployed U.S. military presence is essential. A special naval task force involving the U.S., South Korea and Japan should be formed to re-establish security and reassert freedom of navigation in the Yellow Sea right up to North Korean waters. Most importantly, policies should be implemented to expose Pyongyang with an eye toward empowering the North Korean people. Tried and true methods from the Cold War should be used to help them free themselves of the Kim Jong-Il’s oppressive policies and select those who could lead the country toward a transition. Otherwise, one of the world’s most strategically and economically important regions will be increasingly endangered by a regime that is ready, willing and able to wage war on its peaceful neighbors.
Mr. Magan formerly served as special assistant to President George W. Bush and led the U.S. delegation that negotiated the resumption of food assistance to North Korea. He is a senior vice president at Legatum Institute. Mr. Whiton was a State Department senior adviser from 2003 to 2009 and served as deputy special envoy for North Korean human rights issues. He is a principal at DC Asia Advisory.