Another Pressure Campaign Against North Korea Is Bound to Fail
If the U.S. wants to reduce tensions and possibly make some real progress in negotiating both arms control and a lasting peace agreement, there is no substitute for sustained engagement.
Frank Aum makes a very sensible case for engagement with North Korea instead of the usual isolate-and-punish approach that the U.S. has followed for decades:
Thirty years of empirical evidence indicates that although pressure may inflict pain on North Korea, it does not engender positive behavior. Instead, when the United States applies a hawkish policy against North Korea, it responds negatively.
Aum lays out how pressure and punishment have repeatedly failed and led to worse results, and he reasonably proposes trying something different from the approach that has failed. While he may be a little too optimistic that denuclearization is still possible, he is absolutely right that falling back on more coercion is a dead end. There is no guarantee that a different approach would deliver all or even most of the results that the U.S. would like to see, but we know from experience that the current approach cannot deliver any desirable results. There is reason to believe that engagement leads to improvements in how the North Korean government acts, so there is at least a possibility of improvement with engagement that is simply not there with the current approach.
Pressure campaigns in the form of broad sanctions usually don’t succeed, and they are least likely to succeed against authoritarian adversaries. They are even less likely to succeed when the dispute is over something that the targeted government considers essential to its security. In the North Korean case, pressure campaigns are practically guaranteed to fail because, as Van Jackson has pointed out many times over the years, the North Korean government responds to pressure by increasing its own leverage. As Jackson said almost five years ago, “Pressure-for-pressure and deterrence-through-aggression have been North Korea’s modus operandi since the 1960s and endures today.” This pressure-for-pressure dynamic means that piling on more sanctions in an effort to compel North Korean concessions will predictably backfire and produce more of the same behavior that the U.S. wants to discourage.
Aum acknowledges that there is an impasse that needs to be broken, and he recommends that the U.S. take the initiative in trying to break it. The U.S. is the far more powerful party, and that should give it the luxury of taking the first steps. The U.S. is in a good position to take a chance on reviving negotiations. As Aum notes, “A body of literature suggests that unilateral conciliatory gestures can help dissolve mistrust and spur rapprochement, especially when offered first by the stronger country.” The question is whether the administration is willing to take the domestic political risks that this would entail.
Unfortunately, the politics of North Korea policy in the U.S. make conciliatory gestures hard to sell. The bankruptcy of “maximum pressure” is obvious to everyone that pays close attention to the issue, but Biden and the Democrats would have a hard time making that argument when they have continued with Trump-era sanctions and publicly attacked Trump for his own pseudo-engagement efforts. One of the reasons why failed bipartisan policies are so hard to end is that there are so many people implicated in the failure that they don’t want to admit their part in it. U.S. officials have been publicly dismissing critics of the status quo, so it seems unlikely that they are going to oversee a dramatic change in U.S. policy anytime soon.
Nonetheless, the case for making a dramatic change is strong and the case in favor of keeping the same old sanctions-and-isolation approach is very poor. If the U.S. wants to reduce tensions and possibly make some real progress in negotiating both arms control and a lasting peace agreement, there is no substitute for sustained engagement. Coercion provokes resistance and pressure breeds resentment and distrust. Resorting to more pressure tactics is certain to lead to worsening conditions and greater instability on the Korean Peninsula.