The North Korea threat

Although clearly in violation of several UN Security Council resolutions, the nuclear restart does not really come as a surprise. Pyongyang officially announced its plan to resume operations at Yongbyon back in April, the same month when the North Korean cargo ship Chong Chon Gang set sail for Cuba to pick up 25 containers of military hardware. While the Chong Chon Gang was seized in mid-July by Panamanian authorities and has been found in violation of UN sanctions, evidence of the nuclear restart at Yongbyon has yet to make its impact on the international stage.

The situation regarding North Korea is getting worse by the day, whether it is the nation’s nuclear program, advances in missile technology, cyber warfare operations or its horrible human rights record. But Pyongyang has proven itself to be a formidable opponent and there is little evidence to suggest that additional UN sanctions will bring the North Koreans to their knees. Thus the question becomes: Where do we go from here?

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After more than two decades of post-cold war tit-for-tat, relations between Washington and Pyongyang are at an all-time low. Ironically, within this non-cooperative environment of “strategic patience”, intelligence gathering and public diplomacy has been unwillingly outsourced to non-governmental organizations and people like former NBA star Dennis Rodman. Something has indeed gone terribly wrong when the only country in the world that is openly threatening the United States with nuclear warfare is not being taken seriously.

While there is a reasonable consensus within the Obama administration to avoid repeating the mistakes of the Six-Party Talks, there is also currently no political incentive within Washington to make any concessions towards Pyongyang. At this critical juncture in time, nobody is going anywhere.

The United States and its allies in East Asia are rightfully demanding “meaningful actions towards denuclearization” before entering into any negotiations. The North Koreans meanwhile are only offering negotiations without preconditions. The conundrum the international community is about to face in the weeks and months ahead, is to find a diplomatic solution when the political fronts are geared towards conflict.

But in a world in which cooperation is largely seen as more beneficial than confrontation, the North Korean offer is paradoxically gaining momentum with every new erupting crisis. As in all the years before, President Obama’s policy of "strategic patience" will come under intense scrutiny. Not only by those who believe that any talk is better than being silent, but also by those who seek to avert a possible military escalation.

However, as painful as it may sound the policy of "strategic patience" appears to be the only feasible way to make the North Koreans comply with their obligations to denuclearize. The South Korean government is still learning this lesson the hard way. From the tedious negotiations on reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex to the abrupt cancelling of cross-border family reunions, Seoul's policy of "trust building" with Pyongyang has been nothing but a rocky road with little to show.

The time for talks ended long ago. If Washington stops playing offense now it will surely be on the defensive in the future.

Soesanto is an MA graduate from Yonsei GSIS University (Seoul, South Korea), and current non-resident James A. Kelly Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.