I don’t recall ever seeing Victor Cha offer a view that was particularly original, imaginative, or likely to end in a successful result, but he is a reliable indicator of Washington conventional wisdom about North Korea, which in turn is heavily influenced by Seoul’s views about the North. And here is the new conventional wisdom: we have no idea what to do now. In Cha’s own words:
North Korean behavior has gotten so bad, according to East-West Center Visiting Fellow Victor Cha, that foreign policy experts are really at a loss about what to do.
“You do want to have some sort of diplomacy or engagement, but what do you do if a country just refuses to engage, and in the meantime it continues to build nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles?” Cha said during an interview at the EWC’s recent 50th Anniversary International Conference. “It’s a real dilemma. This is really a case of a country that is operating outside the normal bounds of international relations. And when use of force is really difficult to contemplate as an option, what are you supposed to do?” [East-West Center]
For years, the conventional wisdom has been based on mirror-imaged rationalizations of North Korean motives, rationalizations that failed to understand its irrational (to us) pathology. This was needless, of course. The pathology would have been evident to anyone who confronted is capable of doing to other human human beings, and the profound pathological implications of that capability. Our foreign policy establishment, accustomed to dealing with states that respond to ordinary economic and political incentives, assumed the same of North Korea — that it seeks better trade relations, more commerce with the outside world, the exchange of ambassadors, the reduction of tensions, and a better life for its people. The Foreign Policy Industry clung to them throughout the mutual partisan recriminations (yes, a cliche) that blamed everyone but Kim Jong Il for the collapse of two agreed frameworks.
Perhaps President Obama’s election was just the first necessary element of the destruction of these false assumptions. During the last year, I’ve watched them fall, starting with North Korea’s May 2009 nuclear test, and concluding (for everyone but Mike Chinoy and a few others) after North Korea sank the Cheonan. The new consensus is that talks stand no chance of disarming North Korea, and perhaps not even of preserving the peace. The new consensus is that China isn’t a “responsible partner” that will help us restrain Kim Jong Il within the range of what passes for acceptable provocations. And while sanctions have become more attractive as a policy option, there is no “accepted” view of what plausibly attainable objective they are supposed to serve, because the conventional wisdom still sees them as an accessory to diplomacy. Simply stated, the conventional wisdom is still trying to recover from the destruction of its fundamental assumptions. It has no idea what to do next.
The first step toward a better policy is to acknowledge that the last one didn’t work, and won’t work. The second step is just beginning.