With North Korea likely to field areliable nuclear deterrent within the next 5-10 years, the U.S. has a closing window of opportunity to end the cyclical provocations from Pyongyang, which will become extraordinarily dangerous in a fully nuclearized context.
Currently, U.S. policy is primarilyaimed at persuading China to increase its pressure on North Korea to force it to denuclearize. This is a tried-and-tested route to failure. In the past, China has usually increased support for the North following provocations, and its underlying interests in North Korea have only increased since the U.S. pivot.
Fortunately, the U.S. and its allies do not need China’s cooperation to break the North Korean cycle. A more effective approach towards Pyongyang requires identifying why the regime perpetuates these crises, and then devising a policy that changes the incentive structure it faces. This can be achieved through a “strategic sunshine” policy that combines aspects of the Obama administration’s strategic patience strategy with South Korea’s former sunshine policy.
For all the talk about the opaque nature of the Kim regime, we have a good understanding of why it perpetuates these crises: to extract desperately needed aid. The origins of this strategy date back to the Cold War when North Korea masterfully exploited the Sino-Soviet split to extract aid from both regimes, promising much in return. If one of its patrons tried to force its hand on an issue of importance, then leader Kim Il-Sung would throw his support more forcefully behind the other patron. This infuriated Chinese and Soviet leaders but ultimately they were not willing to allow the North to align completely with their Communist rival.