In Defense of Strategic Patience

The end of the world could not come at a worse time. After years of disappointment and heartbreak, my Philadelphia Eagles rank atop the National Football League with a record of 8 wins and 1 loss. My birthday is in less than a week, and Christmas is only 42 days away. I thought nothing could ruin my week, but I was wrong.

Just days into his two week Asian adventure, President Trump directed fiery, belligerent rhetoric at one of America’s greatest enemies, Rocket Man (also known as Kim Jong Un, Supreme Leader of North Korea). In a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President Trump declared that “the era of strategic patience is over.” This is only the latest installment of increasingly hostile rhetoric towards the Korean dictatorship. At the United Nations in September, President Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. In August, Trump promised “fire and fury” if Kim Jong Un’s regime continued its push toward nuclear weapons. However, President Trump has the completely wrong approach to North Korea. Rather than threatening and chest-thumping, the United States needs to ensure the continuity of ‘strategic patience.’ However, as North Korea has evolved, so too has the concept of strategic patience. In today’s geopolitical climate, ‘strategic patience’ refers to a commitment by the U.S. to patiently reach a long-term solution on North Korea, punctuated (hopefully) by an agreement that trades tangible benefits for North Korean de-escalation.

President Trump repeatedly claims the United States’ response to an increasingly belligerent North Korea has been insufficient for the last 25 years. Critics of ‘strategic patience’ point to the failure of the Clinton and Obama administrations to coerce North Korea into ending its nuclear weapons program. Without threat of force, they argue, North Korea will not cooperate with international norms. However, in order to fully understand the value of strategic patience, it is important to evaluate the actions of the Clinton administration towards the North Koreans.

In 1994, it appeared the issue of North Korean nuclearization would be solved. The Agreed Framework, a deal negotiated between the United States and North Korea, sought to convert Korean nuclear material into traditional energy reserves. Under the agreement, a multinational organization would replace Korean plutonium reactors with two light-water reactors. As compensation, the United States would ship 500,000 tons of fuel oil to the North annually. During this period, it was obvious the Koreans were trying to construct nuclear weapons. The plutonium reactors were not connected to the power grid and appeared to only produce plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. However with this agreement, the United States acknowledged North Korea’s right to produce energy, offering a tangible alternative in exchange for a cessation of nuclear development. Ultimately, the agreement failed as a Republican Congress intervened. With the ascent of the Bush administration, the Agreed Framework was scrapped; the U.S. terminated the supply of fuel oil while the North Koreans expelled U.N. inspectors. The status quo was reestablished.

When the President calls North Korea’s leader ‘Rocket Man’ and popular media describes Kim Jong Un as a maniac, it is easy to believe the North Korean government is irrational. Americans can often be dismissive of foreign leaders’ actions, especially if those actions do not fall in line with our Western beliefs. Americans called Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini the Mad Mullah during the Revolution of 1979, believing Iran was an irrational actor on the global stage. Decades earlier, U.S. officials dubbed Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser ‘Hitler on the Nile’ as he pushed for pan-Arabism in the Middle East and Africa. Essentially, when states act outside the constraints of western norms, American policymakers instantly assume the reason is insanity or irrationality. This characterizes the Trump’s administration’s view toward North Korea, but this could not be further from the truth.

Kim Jong Un and the North Korean government subscribe to realpolitik. Motivated by self-preservation and institutional consistency, Kim Jong Un will do anything to ensure his government lasts another day. However, with rampant poverty, starvation, and oppression, the dictatorship needs to find a cause that will unite all North Koreans. Its scapegoat: the United States of America. As a result, the North wages a daily propaganda war against the U.S., claiming that America seeks to upend the North Korean government, unite the peninsula, and impose western tyranny. Therefore, the only way to win acknowledgment from the American ‘tyrants’ is to ensure mutual destruction. To deter an American attack, the North Korean government needs to develop a nuclear weapon. Drawing lessons from Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, rulers who agreed to end their nuclear programs and were subsequently deposed, Kim believes the only way to preserve his government is to scapegoat the United States and develop a nuclear weapon. Thus, Trump’s promise to “totally destroy” North Korea will not make them stop developing the bomb, it will make them want to build that bomb faster, seeing American intervention on the peninsula as an increasingly likely scenario.

So how can ‘strategic patience’ help? Firstly, our ‘strategic patience’ could be a little more strategic. Chest-thumping and sanction-passing after every missile test reinforces North Korea’s belief that going nuclear is the only way to earn acknowledgement from western powers. Additionally, we must recognize that Kim Jong Un cannot de-escalate unilaterally. If he did, he would run the risk of appearing weak against the United States. Any potential agreement has to include a bilateral exchange of benefits. The Agreed Framework was powerful because it recognized the North’s right to provide energy for its citizens, trading that acknowledgement for nuclear-producing technology. With an exchange of benefits, the U.S. can encourage the North to de-escalate while Kim’s regime can still save face.

Although others might argue that the United States should not deal with a rogue regime, the alternatives are even worse. Right now, the United States has little ability to influence the behavior of North Korea. Sanctions can only do so much damage to an already isolated economy, and political coercion only reinforces a cycle of threat, escalation, and tension. With a possible agreement, the United States might actually have some clout, trading concessions with the regime in exchange for de-escalation. The U.S. cannot expect the North to unilaterally disarm or moderate their rhetoric. The alternative to ‘strategic patience’ is allowing North Korea to act in their own interests, unconstrained by any international agreement. That is a scary thought.  

The rhetoric of President Trump towards North Korea is childish, ignorant, and counterproductive to the global mission of nuclear nonproliferation and human rights. It is easy to dismiss the North’s regime as irrational, but we must recognize North Korea is motivated by self-preservation. Further, North Korea is constrained by its own harsh rhetoric. Unilateral de-escalation is an impossible proposition to a regime concerned about saving face. ‘Strategic patience,’ underpinned by a commitment to negotiate with a hostile regime, will yield benefits in the long-run. How do we do this? Get Trump off Twitter, to a negotiating table, and let ‘strategic patience’ work its magic.

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