Washington is facing a North Korea dilemma. Its objective of denuclearizing North Korea and its coercive strategy — harsh rhetoric, combined military exercises and tightening sanctions — seem contradictory. Washington’s emphasis on this strategy appears to have increased rather than decreased Pyongyang’s resolve to acquire nuclear weapons and associated delivery capabilities. The more Washington ratchets up its coercive strategy, the more likely it is to face the prospect of a major war.1

Muthiah Alagappa
Alagappa, formerly a nonresident senior fellow in the Asia Program, was the first holder of the Tun Hussein Onn Chair in international studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His research focuses primarily on Asian security, the political legitimacy of governments, civil society and political change, and the political role of the military in Asia.
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Washington’s dilemma arises from its commitment to denuclearize North Korea and making denuclearization a precondition for dialogue. It views sanctions and the Chinese role in enforcing them as key to achieving that objective.2 However, both the objective and strategy are flawed. Pyongyang’s commitment to the development of a nuclear-weapons capability is firmly rooted in its insecurity and the perception that the US and South Korea are out to undermine and eventually overthrow North Korea’s totalitarian regime. It has come to view nuclear weapons and the capability to strike the US as the ultimate guarantors of its national and regime security. The fate of Saddam Hussein’s non-nuclear Iraq and the equivocal approach of Washington when dealing with nuclear-weapons states underlie Pyongyang’s attachment to its nuclear-weapons capability. Much like Pakistan before, Pyongyang is willing to pay any price for that capability. It is pertinent to recall here that the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is reputed to have asserted: “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.” Economic sanctions will thus not work. In fact, tightening sanctions over the years has increased Pyongyang’s resolve. Further tightening of sanctions could lead to war, the consequence of which would be disastrous....

This article was originally published in Global Asia.

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