Do threats, bullying, sanctions, and threats work to rein in a rogue state? There is little evidence that these policies have beneficial results and much evidence that they often backfire or, as the CIA puts it, create "blowback." It is emotionally satisfying to punish those that misbehave, but it’s rarely effective. Our policies toward North Korea are strong evidence that belligerence is ineffective.
As everyone knows, North Korea has exploded another nuclear weapon and has recently launched several short-range and long-range missiles. This hostile activity has followed a period during which that closed society actually worked with other nations to reduce tension and stop its nuclear activity. What has gone so wrong?
A review of the last couple of decades shows periods when North Korea agreed to talks and limits on its activities and periods when it became openly hostile. From the end of the Korean War, with an armistice in 1953, to the 1990s, the U.S. had little to do with that withdrawn state. In 1985, Pyongyang joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; in 1990, North Korea started talks with South Korea over keeping the Korean peninsula free of nuclear arms. In 1992, the two states issued a Denuclearization Statement affirming the absence of those weapons. Later, the International Atomic Energy Agency raised questions about the North’s activities. In 1993, the U.S. and Kim Il-sung began talks; the dictator invited ex-president Jimmy Carter to be a go-between. Carter was able to bring the U.S. representatives and the North Koreans together. The State Department and North Korea reached an agreement in October 1994.
Pyongyang agreed to freeze its plutonium enrichment program; the U.S. agreed to provide the North with a light water reactor. The U.S. also agreed to provide heavy fuel oil to run its power plants until the reactor was up and running. In addition, the two countries agreed to work toward a normalization of political and economic relations. In truth, the U.S. government failed to live up to its commitments. Congress was unwilling to provide funds for the supplies, so fuel oil deliveries were slow and less than promised. Moreover, the Republicans, who had taken control of Congress, were suspicious of this secretive, Communist regime and dragged their heels at accommodating the North. Many in Congress believed the agreement to be appeasement. The North, for its part, had agreed to store its spent nuclear fuel and put it under the observation of the IAEA; by 2000, it had largely met that requirement. As for the light water reactors, progress was slow; only in 1998 were bids solicited to build the facilities. In 2000, the Clinton administration and Pyongyang initiated new negotiations, the Agreed Framework Implementation Talks, to further progress.
When campaigning for the presidency, George W. Bush expressed his opposition to those talks, although he continued them for a few months after he took office. In his State of the Union address in 2002, President Bush labeled North Korea part of the "Axis of Evil." His administration charged that Pyongyang was developing a uranium-enrichment program and, unless those activities were verifiably stopped, the Bush administration would freeze relations with the regime. In addition, the U.S. stopped the fuel oil deliveries.
The result was predictable. North Korea ordered the UN inspectors out of its country, quit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and restarted its nuclear activities. The Bush administration refused to participate in direct talks with Pyongyang, insisting on six-party talks. South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia all do have a strong interest in North Korean activities, but in Pyongyang’s view, it was being ganged-up on five to one.
During its first term, the Bush administration put as much pressure as possible on the North, but no progress was made. During Bush’s second term, the U.S. State Department was able to take a less hostile approach. At the same time, South Korea adopted the "Sunshine Policy" of talking to the North, providing it with food, and improving economic contacts. Relations between the two parts of the peninsula improved, leading to movement on the diplomatic front. In December 2007, however, the conservative party in South Korea took office and expressed its hostility toward the North by putting an end to the Sunshine Policy. As a result, diplomatic progress was derailed. The North resumed its nuclear activities and exploded its second nuclear warhead.
The Obama administration must take the lead now in dealing with the North. Pyongyang accuses the United States of being hostile, so we should make it clear that we are not working for regime-change or to undermine their country and that we could work with them toward a more peaceful world.
From a broader prospective, the lessons should be clear. Carrots work better than sticks. Few countries are deterred by sanctions. For nearly 60 years, the U.S. has attempted to isolate Cuba by placing draconian restrictions on trade and other dealings with that state; that policy has been a total failure. Burma, Iran, Syria, and Zimbabwe are all subject to international sanctions, largely sponsored by the U.S. There has been no progress with any of these countries. We need to rethink our policies of refusing to talk to or deal with these nations. We should talk to North Korea, one on one. We should talk to Iran, one on one. We should talk to Syria, one on one. It is vitally important to convince the "Dear Leader" that nuclear weapons must be scrapped, but the carrot is much more likely to succeed than the stick, however emotionally satisfying the latter may seem.