Under the Obama administration, U.S. policy toward North Korea largely has devolved into the president sitting in the Oval Office, closing his eyes, and hoping the nuclear monsters will go away. Alas, it hasn’t worked. Pyongyang has staged its 4th nuclear test and may well be working on the hydrogen bomb that it falsely claimed to have tested.
The administration’s frustration in dealing with the DPRK is understandable. Nothing seems to have worked. The latest member of the ruling Kim dynasty is unlikely to abandon his nation’s nuclear pretensions. In fact, the latest test came amid evidence of warming ties with the People’s Republic of China and reports of a possible invitation to Kim Jong-un to visit Beijing. Evidently Pyongyang cares no more about its ally’s than America’s opinion on the issue.
Washington is pressing the UN Security Council to approve additional sanctions; the House has passed legislation to impose additional unilateral economic penalties. But the Kims never have let their people’s suffering influence policy, the North’s economy remains largely isolated except for trade with China, and so far Beijing, though professing to support a “necessary response” by the UN, has refused to apply sufficient pressure to threaten the Kim regime’s survival.
If China did so the U.S., its allies South Korea and Japan, and China all might regret getting what they wished for. An abrupt and violent regime collapse could yield civil disorder, factional combat, loose nukes, and refugee tides. The consequences would overflow the DPRK’s boundaries. That could lead to Chinese military intervention to stabilize a new, pro-PRC government in Pyongyang. Then the Republic of Korea would face a renewed and likely permanent division of the peninsula.
The only other alternative? What Beijing has advocated all along: engagement with the North. Obviously, there’s no guarantee that this approach will work either. Nevertheless, it offers what the North most wants–direct contact with America. Talking to North Korea offers a better hope of success than ignoring it.