Why sticks don't work with North Korea
January 25th, 2013
11:59 AM ET

Why sticks don't work with North Korea

By Charles Armstrong, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Charles Armstrong is the director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University. The views expressed are his own.

Anyone who has followed North Korean affairs for the last several years (or the last two decades) could have predicted North Korea’s defiant response to the U.N. Security Council resolution this week condemning North Korea’s rocket launch last December and strengthening international sanctions against Pyongyang. But it should also be clear by now that while carrots only occasionally deter North Korea’s provocative behavior, sticks – whether in the form of sanctions or threats of military action – only make North Korea defiant and more bellicose.

In 1994, the first time the United States proposed taking the North Korean nuclear question to the United Nations, North Korea announced that any impositions of U.N. sanctions would be considered “an act of war.” In 2006, and again in 2009, North Korea responded to U.N. sanctions not by giving up missiles and nukes, but ratcheting up the rhetoric. In the past, promises of security and economic aid have persuaded Pyongyang to freeze or reduce its missile and nuclear programs: North Korea halted its plutonium program for eight years following an agreement with the United States in 1994, adhered to a voluntary moratorium on missile tests from 1998 to 2006, and shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor in 2007 as part of a multilateral agreement. The record may not be terribly encouraging, but carrots do occasionally work.

Much has been made of the fact that North Korea this week directed its threats specifically against the United States (before issuing a warning to South Korea earlier today), calling America its “sworn enemy” and claiming that its would “target” the United States with its weapons. But this too is nothing new. North Korea has for years denounced America’s “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang and has long insisted that its nuclear program is designed to defend the country against an American attack. North Korea’s ability to strike American territory with missiles is questionable, and North Korea almost certainly lacks the technological capability to mount a nuclear weapon on a missile. Neither side is willing to back down, but threats and sanctions are unlikely to resolve the key issues dividing them.

More from GPS: North Korean dance begins again

For the past year, the North Korean regime has been focused on internal power consolidation under the leadership of Kim Jong Un. Part of Kim’s legitimacy rests on claims of a robust national defense, including nuclear weapons. North Korea seems determined to be recognized as a nuclear power, something the United States and other countries have said repeatedly is unacceptable. But it seems there is little anyone can do to prevent North Korea from developing its nuclear program, including conducting a third nuclear tests (after the ones in 2006 and 2009) in the coming weeks or months. The latest sanctions announced by the United Nations may look robust on paper, but without enforcement – above all by China, North Korea’s most important economic partner – sanctions have no teeth. So far, Chinese enforcement of U.N. sanctions has been tepid at best, as China prefers to keep North Korea economically viable rather than risk instability on its border.

Kim Jong Un has also talked about improving North Korea’s moribund economy and hinted that he would move the country in the direction of reform and opening. Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s visit to Pyongyang earlier this month could point the way for North Korea to come out of its shell and join the global economy. The visit was criticized by the U.S. State Department, and doesn’t seem to have produced anything of significance so far. But the very fact that North Korea allowed the visit suggests Kim Jong Un is interested in bringing modern technology to his country, to improve the state of the North Korea economy through connections with the outside world.

The dilemma, though, is that North Korea can only embark on serious reform from a condition of what it considers absolute security, in which neither the leadership nor the country as a whole is threatened by hostile outside forces. Unfortunately, the quest for security and the desire for economic improvement have been in contradiction for some time. A genuine opening could unleash political and social changes that threaten the legitimacy and stability of the regime, while the path of security through nuclear deterrence and missiles have led time and again to confrontation and renewed isolation.

So, where do we go from here?  The United States and the United Nations have little choice but to impose sanctions in response to North Korea’s actions, which clearly violate earlier sanction conditions. But it is hard to see how such sanctions can deter a determined and defiant North Korea, especially if the sanctions are not rigorously enforced. The best we can hope for is that the latest confrontation will finally bring all sides together – including both Koreas, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan – to solve this issue.

Diplomacy, not threats or sanctions – and certainly not military action – is the only viable path to resolution.

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Topics: China • North Korea • United States

soundoff (246 Responses)
  1. matthew pisoni fort lauderdale

    Kim Jong-un isn't crazy at all. He is simply playing the crazy card, his motivations are anyone's guess. An opinion that seems plausible is that he will get some concessions in exchange for backing off of his current stance. Its a game that he seems to be winning. He seems to love life and all of its pleasures too much to risk suicide.

    April 12, 2013 at 11:03 am | Reply
  2. robertfallin

    The US and the UN have lost all semblance of moral authority for tolerating preemptive war by the US and Israel and the willful disobedience by Israel to obey repeated UN resolutions, including Resolution 242. Kim is not stupid nor crazy; he knows what happened to Saddam and Gaddafi and what is being done to Syria Pakistan, Yemen, etc. If I lived in a neighborhood of thugs, I would want the best weapon possible to hurt them REAL bad if they came after me. What does Kim have to lose? His life, his country? Ask Iraq. Ask Afghanistan. Ask Libya.

    April 13, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  3. Rogue351

    China had better get this little dictator under control quickly. China is invested heavily with the west and if they want that to continue they will fix this. If they drag their feet and the Little Dictator get further out of control China is going to start seeing the effects where it hurts, finically. North Korea is Chinas problem and the world should be watching to see how they handle it. Allowing North Korea to continue to threaten and attempt to intimidate while developing a better nuke is not going to work for the test of the world. Making one Korea, getting rid of the Norths military and bringing the two countries together would go along way for China.

    April 14, 2013 at 12:47 am | Reply
  4. theorycraft

    So weak illegitimate leaders can do whatever they want? NKorea is never going to open up willingly.

    April 14, 2013 at 11:47 pm | Reply
  5. mike

    What a weak column. If the South Korean people are willing to fight let them beat the hell out of the North. The only diplomacy is calling on the North to dissolve.

    April 17, 2013 at 1:08 am | Reply
  6. Dave

    I'm not suggesting that N. Korea should be allowed to threaten the US with nuclear weapons and as some have already suggested, the threat of military action against N. Korea would certainly rattle the Chinese. However, we need to remind ourselves that N. Korea also shares a small but common border with Russia. (See any atlas) which requires us to be smart enough to think about unintended consequences.

    April 17, 2013 at 11:23 am | Reply
  7. fair is fair

    Why are you so afraid to talkt to them directly or secretly – then again maybe US has, but

    George broke the agreement. You can't blame the North Koreans for being isolated and paranoid. When dealing with the US there is ample reason.

    Wikipedia. Article on Jimmy Carter:

    "Carter negotiated an understanding with Kim Il-sung, but went further and outlined a treaty, which he announced on CNN without the permission of the Clinton White House as a way to force the US into action. The Clinton Administration signed a later version of the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to freeze and ultimately dismantle its current nuclear program and comply with its nonproliferation obligations in exchange for oil deliveries, the construction of two light water reactors to replace its graphite reactors, and discussions for eventual diplomatic relations.

    The agreement was widely hailed at the time as a significant diplomatic achievement.[80][81] In December 2002, the Agreed Framework collapsed as a result of a dispute between the George W. Bush Administration and the North Korean government of Kim Jong-il. In 2001, Bush had taken a confrontational position toward North Korea and, in January 2002, named it as part of an "Axis of Evil". Meanwhile, North Korea began developing the capability to enrich uranium. Bush Administration opponents of the Agreed Framework believed that the North Korean government never intended to give up a nuclear weapons program, but supporters believed that the agreement could have been successful and was undermined.[82]

    April 18, 2013 at 12:29 am | Reply
  8. patriadical

    i love how everyone on here has an opinion of what we should do as a nation....last time i checked North Korea has more man power than we do and followers who worship their leader as a god..the only plausible solution without the loss of mass casualties would be to bomb the daylights out of the country...but that is not only politically incorrect but morally wrong to kill the same human lives that we will send aid too in the wake of a disaster...the real answer is there is no right or wrong answer to the problem..you're damned if you do and damned if you don't...as much trading as we do with China they still are like the big brother of NK, China needs NK for the simple fact that they do not want American troops on their doorstep..but they also do not want a conflict on their border either...China has major interest in both NK and America(due to the fact that they pretty much own us in alot of ways...and you never want to break something you own until you are reimbursed what was invested into it and then some) and NK gets a majority of their imports from China as well..although im sure they are getting tired of the rhetoric, actions will most likely not be taken to do anything to cripple the already frail economy of its neighbor..which leads me back to my point that foreign policy is a Catch-22 of sorts due to the fact that their are so many variables that go into every decision one must make when looking at the picture as a whole...as nice as it would be to just squash the problem there is a 99% chance that any military action will open up a can of worms that could not be predicted realistically until it were to happen...any prediction of what could happen is simply speculation because NK is such a wild card there is no way one could predict the outcome of military conflict because bombing alone will not fix the regime and mindset of its people..one simply can look at iraq and Afghanistan to see that things are not always as easy as they seem..you can win every single battle but not win the war .and putting troops in NK would lose alot of american lives needlessly because their military might although not as tested as the US is nothing to scoff at..that being said if their is any such action taken by NK to destroy the US or its allies(which we are OBLIGATED to protect)then military action MUST we can not let something happen that could be prevented, but rhetoric is rhetoric saying and doing are two different things..saddam used alot of rhetoric towards the US but was never a legitimate threat ...the best solution is to just make sure we are winning the information war and ahead of the curve with technology at the forefront whether its espionage or hacking of computer systems(the same way china hacks us on a daily basis) that way if the threats are LEGITIMATE then we take swift action out of necessity with safety being the main priority due to them leaving us no choice...because bombing a country is fair game if your own citizens and allies are in danger...but to do it because of the rhetoric of a few leaders who will probably survive the blast anyways while the ones we would be killing have no say in the matter is wrong on so many levels...that is unless we the american people are in danger..then our leaders are left with no choice..because although all life is sacred it is the duty of our elected officials to do any and everything to protect us AS WELL AS OUR MILITARY which means not bringing them into a conflict that is unjustified

    April 22, 2013 at 2:22 am | Reply
  9. YaValioCacaWates

    I feel sorry for all the brainwashed N Koreans supporting little fat Kim Jong Un's insane asylum regime. He is worst than his father and grandfather combined.

    April 23, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Reply
  10. pnm9pnm

    you know the asias have bina shotten stuff like that be4 the gun an boomb ifin its elegal 4 kim jong to do that way mow thats the way me ,.pnm,. jeffroe an gomer benna sifering it,s so what up mow kim mow,.pnm,.ps lets grt it on,.pnm,.

    April 23, 2013 at 9:37 pm | Reply
  11. Mohd masood / India

    Comments are waist the world and the people of the world is doing what ever they want ,not listening to their family their friends their is no Ethics left on religion values people talk nonsence about Islam , christians, jews what they see is oppertunity USA is a World Defaulter in every sense and their planning they only think HOW HOW to take control ONCE it was Russia ,they are so weak now that they cannt even raise finger US has cut them in all fronts Chechniya they should and can have stopped the fighting in one day and the other places you can see by yourself TODAY .

    April 24, 2013 at 10:07 am | Reply
  12. Michaelfei

    What is the cause of making the world so divided? how to enable every country live in a balance of power?

    April 25, 2013 at 10:56 am | Reply
  13. stephen mann

    North Korea won't change until China does. It is a buffer state between South Korea and itself. Therefore, we should concede in advance that China will continue to control it in return for its invading it to end the current regime. The USA should sign a treaty with China about this...

    April 28, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Reply
  14. Jon

    Spoken like a rationalizing dove. Looking at the photo, by the way, I couldn't tell right away who the adult was...

    April 29, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Reply

    Stupid is doing something 1000 times , getting the same result 999 times and expecting to get a different result on attempt 1000. We need a bigger stick to beat North Korea with. They've eaten all of the carrots.

    April 29, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Reply
  16. lweba

    Because they are most belligerent when America has a war going on elsewhere. And at this time America is forced to use the carrot.

    April 29, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  17. BillBob

    Sticks won't work with NK. Judging from their pudgy potentate, especially sticks with food impaled on them.

    May 3, 2013 at 7:01 am | Reply
  18. mark jimenez

    STOP BTTCHING AND DO SOME CHIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    May 12, 2013 at 11:45 am | Reply
  19. Brian

    Diplomacy will never work with N.K. Silly op-ed.

    May 21, 2013 at 7:21 am | Reply
  20. Michael

    Why sticks don't work with North Korea:
    Because we haven't used them yet.

    May 23, 2013 at 11:13 am | Reply
  21. go

    Thanks for your post. I would like to say that the first thing you will need to complete is find out if you really need credit repair. To do that you must get your hands on a duplicate of your credit score. That should really not be difficult, because government necessitates that you are allowed to get one free copy of your actual credit report every year. You just have to request the right individuals. You can either browse the website for the Federal Trade Commission or contact one of the major credit agencies directly.

    May 24, 2013 at 5:29 am | Reply
  22. Billy

    The last statement in this article is naive. Diplomacy will not work with North Korea. This is a regime that puts generations of families in concentration camps, and lets its people starve. Diplomacy hasn't worked with them in the past. What they need to be offered is nothing. This regime has been living off of western aid for too long now. The rest of world lets this regime exist while it puts its citizens into concentration camps, lets them starve, pilfers the aid that is sent for the citizens, and grinds down their spirits until they are parodies of human beings. It's time for a change of tact; Diplomacy has failed with North Korea.

    May 26, 2013 at 2:39 am | Reply
  23. Billy

    What's needed is No Diplomacy with North Korea and a solution in which the burden does not fall on China.

    After the second world war the UN was set up to ensure that situations like the Holocaust never happened again. Situations like the Holocaust have happened again, though often in shorter time frames, and in war zones. The concentration camps in North Korea are different. The UN has known about them for years through survivor reports and through satellite technology, yet nothing is done to stop the concentration camps existing. The current North Korean regime is a blight on human nature and it is pathetic that the world stands back and allows it to continue to commit atrocities on the North Korean people.

    May 26, 2013 at 2:55 am | Reply
  24. Ton

    Obviously the author is just so naive to even think that to deal with a dictator, all you need to do it to tell him "ya good boy, don't do it again", then expects that your words work miraculously. Btw, why this has to do with the US? Just stop all the food and they will beg to open up, sooner or later.

    May 26, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Reply
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    May 26, 2013 at 11:55 pm | Reply
  26. murthy

    Sticks do not work anywhere,neither in North korea nor in Iran. West was always wrong in thinking that sanctions can make a country change its course. Incentives are the only peaceful method to solve the problems.

    June 3, 2013 at 3:11 am | Reply
  27. Matt Mueller

    And incentives don't work in terms of doing what really needs to be done in North Korea. Freeing and protecting its citizens. Any incentives simply reinforce the position and privileged power of the ruling class in Pyongyang. The only openness Un is interested in is in the kind of openness that gets him more money, power, and luxuries. Targeted sanctions help some but not much. But more so than incentives that get the North Korean powers to lull the west to sleep while consolidating their domestic power and extending their rule by decades

    June 5, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Reply
  28. greg

    Why do we bother with anything this idiot says? Don't even cover this Fat boy.

    November 25, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Reply
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