Time for U.S. to disengage from North Korea crisis
February 13th, 2013
09:47 AM ET

Time for U.S. to disengage from North Korea crisis

By Doug Bandow, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.’ The views expressed are his own.

Pyongyang has dismissed international criticism of its third nuclear test, claiming to be responding to “outrageous” American hostility.  The proper response from Washington is a yawn.

The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has long been an international black hole. Totalitarian, impoverished, belligerent, irresponsible. Yet, while a wreck of a country, it has managed to confound its neighbors and the United States.  Despite years of hope that it would either collapse or reform, the Kim dynasty staggers on, a system of monarchical communism seemingly immune to a changing world.

The nuclear test is the latest blow to hopes that Kim Jong-un, the son of Kim Jong-il, heralds a new era of modernization. But this week’s events should not surprise anyone. North Korea doesn’t work for most North Koreans. But it works well for the elite. Its members have little incentive to change. And while it might be nice to rule a wealthier, more powerful nation, opening up the political system risks leaving apparatchiks not only out of power, but hanging from lampposts.

The events of the last year demonstrate that North Korea intends to be a nuclear state. That doesn’t mean that Pyongyang might not be willing to deal – for instance, on future bomb-making and proliferation. However, the United States, its allies, and the North’s neighbors all should be thinking about how to deal with a nuclear North Korea.

Ultimately, though, it should be evident that Kim & Co. really aren’t Washington’s problem. The North directs much of its ire at the United States, but America is a target only because Washington is intimately involved in the Korean Peninsula.  Absent an alliance with South Korea and U.S. forces on station, North Korea would care as much about America as about Europe.

More from GPS: Running out of tools for North Korea

Washington should step back from the Korean imbroglio. The U.S. commitment was forged during the Cold War and was necessary to prevent the Republic of Korea from being swallowed by a North backed by Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union. That world is long gone. Neither China nor Russia would back the North in war, and South Korea far outranges the North on most measures of national power. With twice the population and 40 times the GDP, the South could build a military of whatever size is necessary to deter Pyongyang. Maintaining 28,500 Americans on the peninsula makes no sense for the United States

Detachment would allow Washington to rethink its approach to both North Korea and China. Today, the United States subsidizes allies that it keeps almost wholly dependent. The Korean War ended six decades ago, but American generals still formally command the South Korean forces. A bilateral treaty limits the range and payload of South Korean missiles. Work on a nuclear weapon by President Park Chung-hee, father of the incoming South Korean president, was suppressed by Washington. America has fostered similar dependence in Japan.

Unfortunately, this policy has left prosperous and potentially powerful states vulnerable to threats from the North, another army with a country, as Prussia once was known. Antiquated security commitments have also kept America entangled, facing the risk of war because of miscalculation or mistake thousands of miles away.

More from GPS: Name and shame China

The nuclear “umbrella” over South Korea and Japan is particularly problematic. Although advanced in the name of nonproliferation, this guarantee risks making Northeast Asia safe for nuclear-armed bad guys who can be contained only by an America prepared to risk Los Angeles for Seoul or Tokyo. Washington should begin contemplating, within earshot of Beijing, getting out of the way of its allies if the North continues to develop nuclear weapons. The message to China should be: if your client state continues its present course, you may face a nuclear-armed Japan. If that happens, blame your buddies in Pyongyang.

At the same time, administration officials should huddle with their counterparts in Seoul and Tokyo to develop a comprehensive approach to the People’s Republic of China to encourage it to apply real pressure on the North to moderate its behavior. For instance, the allies should promise not to take geopolitical advantage of a North Korean collapse – most important, not to station U.S. troops in a unified Korea. Offering positive inducements while sharing the nightmare of a nuclear North Korea might move China to act.

Finally, Washington should seek to create the possibility of future dialogue. The U.S. could offer to open limited consular relations, lift travel restrictions, and relax economic sanctions. But there should be no frenzied negotiations, no strenuous effort to reach another agreement trading aid for something or other. Rather, the objective should be to encourage more normal contacts if Pyongyang desired. Washington should explain that the process eventually could lead to something more, but that would depend on the North behaving as a more normal nation.

North Korea’s latest nuclear test is unfortunate, but not unexpected.  Washington should offer a muted reaction, while disengaging from the permanent crisis known as North Korea. So far, allied policy has unfortunately failed at almost every turn.

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Topics: North Korea

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soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Judith Anne

    Years ago, when I was being bullied, my Father told me the next time she approached me to tell her, "I have better things to do." I did it, and she never bothered me again.

    February 13, 2013 at 10:18 am |
  2. serviceman

    Totally right. We tried. I mean, some of us tried. The Clinton administration had the last chance to stop Yongbyeong's reactor with a strike before it started up, but who knows how many South Koreans would have died in a possible counter attack, and as we see now, it would have only delayed the inevitable. The problem is and always has been China. The South Koreans biggest trading partner is China, so it seems nobody is behind us on stopping the North Koreans. Fine. We need to forge on with ABM technology, and the rest of Asia can continue to pursue economic fruits while living with an insane nuclear regime.

    February 13, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • Karl-Heinz

      Why do you care so much about North and South Korea?! Asia is 10-times as strong as the USA! We invested billions in creating Western Societies (NATO, EU, USA), but if USA plays the wrong game and is not even capable to keep America up-to-date, then nothing can help us. It is not everything lost for now, but with wrong US strategy, the West is going to keep losing. We do not wanna lose, and that's why we want the USA to learn winning again.

      February 14, 2013 at 10:21 am |
  3. rightospeak

    Excellent article, Doug. At least there is one thinking guy at CNN . The future of Korean people is in unification of North and South and all efforts should be towards that end. It would result in peace on that peninsula.
    I thought these were ourious statements . "North Korea doesn't work for most North Koreans. but it works well for the elite"-just like in the US ? " Intends to be a nuclear state"-for your info ,it is.

    February 13, 2013 at 10:32 am |
  4. Doc

    The same should be said about U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Our involvement there hasn't helped anyone and has hurt everyone.

    February 13, 2013 at 10:42 am |
  5. Ric

    The best possible solution is for the Korean War to actually come to an end. Outside nations, such as the US, should only provide military equipment but not personnel. Of course China, perhaps even Russia, would supply the North and the West would supply the South. If anything it can be a trial run for West vs. East military equipment. If South Korean F-15s can easily defeat North Korean Chinese made J-10s – China then would have to think twice about entertaining any notion of military parity with the US, hence China’s overall policies would reflect that fear. Either way, the Korean War must come to a conclusion by having a victor and loser. Hopefully, that would be the country that adheres to the principles of democracy and rule of law.

    February 13, 2013 at 11:39 am |
  6. bribarian

    I agree, it's best to leave that region. The american empire is over with.

    February 13, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
  7. j. von hettlingen

    The author suggested, the US should ignore North Korea's provocative acts and try instead to focus on arming J apan. This is not an ideal solution, as the Pacific Northeast would see a nuclear proliferation. Neither Russia nor China would want this scenario. So the US could reach out to both and find a solution.

    February 13, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
  8. Schiefleitner

    It is not enough disengagement from North Korea, no, also we need disengage from South Korea. South Korea is not one reliable business partner, are non-western (non-democratic, not according to western standards), dangerous, aggressive, ..., we need import limits on all Korean products (hyundai, samsung, daewoo, ... ) or even better: no trade with Koreans.

    February 14, 2013 at 4:59 am |
    • yankkiller592955599

      remove yourself from the gene pool, useless retard

      February 23, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
  9. zaeed

    just get over with it china just a-bombe usa and give them a war im tired of all these talk. a-bombe britain australia ireland and ghana also.

    February 14, 2013 at 9:30 am |
  10. Pat cady

    Absolutely wrong sawed. The us should not be bombed and china doesn't want a war with us. Their still decades behind militarily and rely on constant economic growth. This century again belongs to the us and our allies

    February 14, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
  11. dongsoola

    get out from whatever that was put into your minds by whoever evils and get real facts.

    North Korea can end US.
    North Korea is the only nation in the world who is fully ready for full scale nuclear war.
    북조선은 미국을 끝낼수있다.
    북조선은 세계에서 핵 전면전쟁을 치를수 있도록 완전 준비되있는 오로지 한 나라이다.

    US media and government is hiding this fact from its people.
    미국미디아와 정부는 이것을 국민들에게 알리지 않코 있다.

    Another fact is that North Korea wants an non-aggression pact with US that both parties will never attack each other.
    This will officially end Korean war and leads Koreans into unifications that most Koreans want.
    또하나 사실은 북조선은 미국과 서로 공격하지 않켔다는 불가침조약을 맺는것을 원하고 있다.
    이 평화조약은 한국전쟁을 공식적으로 끝낼껏이며 거의 모든 한국사람들이 원하는 통일을 가져올껏이다.

    US,however, is refusing to sign non-aggression pact.
    Instead, US is continously trying to provoke North Korea by isolating the country economically and politically.
    하지만 미국은 평화조약을 거절하구 있다.
    그대신 미국은 계속 북조선을 경제적 정치적으로 고립하면서 자극하고 있다.

    American public is not anything near ready for nuclear war.
    The only people in US who is going to survive by nuclear war are just few people in missile defences
    and millitary heads who will hide in deep ground protective facility like NORAD.
    미국민들은 핵전쟁에 전혀 준비되어 있지 않타.
    미국민중에 핵전쟁후에 생존할수있는 사람들은 오로지 NORAD같이 땅 깊숙한 시설에 숨을 미사일 방위에 있는 사람들이나

    Any person with right mind should put a stop US government and the media driving us into nuclear ashes.
    정상적인 사람이면 우리를 핵의 재로 몰고 가는 미국정부와 미디아들을 멈추게 해야한다

    February 14, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
    • Jack

      Are you North Korean?

      Heavy propaganda...

      February 17, 2013 at 8:33 am |
    • Boris

      He's an NK propagandist. Just ignore him.

      February 19, 2013 at 7:17 am |
  12. Heinz

    North Korea is no trust-worth partner, no South Korea, neither. We need stop importing Korean products, set import-limits, and disengage from Koreans (no North, no South Korea business, anymore).

    February 18, 2013 at 9:23 am |
    • yankkiller592955599

      hope you end up dismembered

      February 23, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
  13. Alex279

    Leaving the standard western rhetoric aside, I actually agree with this article. In fact, this is the most pragmatic assessment of the situation around NK I have seen on CNN web suite.

    This is not about appeasement, this is about pragmatic way out. Actually for everybody, including NK, South, and even US. NK is not in a position to start war against South, even if US troops leave. Even Kim understand this. On the other hand, constant external pressure is on of the key pillars which makes it possible to sustain the regime in its current form. Removing the pillar will make Kim to face the unavoidable economic reality, and the fact that NK is helplessly behind technologically in comparison with its neighbors. The choices for him are on the table: either become a source of cheap labor for China, or (perhaps better) use Vietnam as the example (there is evidence that Kim leaning this way); or (the worst) regime implosion through openness and democratic reforms a `la Gorbachev. But in any case the tensions between NK and SK will lessen.

    February 23, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
  14. Redleg

    Dumbest artlcle I've read all week . . . and that's saying alot.

    February 28, 2013 at 2:31 am |
  15. David

    Good idea...pull out of there, Africa and the MIddle East. Turn Israel lose...and work on re-building a domestic United States of America. We are NOT the world's policemen...let the World deal with their OWN problems until it's on our shores...then deal with it completely. Turn those problems into nuclear dust. It only takes ONE for the world to know not to bite the USA...as our BITE is a lot worse than out BARK...(and should be). Roosevelt said it "talk softly and carry a big stick"...

    March 4, 2013 at 9:20 am |
  16. Anonymous

    This especially helped my question, Cheers!


    October 24, 2013 at 3:56 am |

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