After Trying 'Strategic Patience,' U.S. Needs New Approach to North Korea

Last week, the U.S. proposed to the United Nations Security Council a new set of sanctions against North Korea designed to slow down development of the rogue state's nuclear weapons program.

Most analysts agree that the sanctions represent the toughest and most comprehensive effort to date to punish the North Koreans for repeated nuclear tests that have violated previous resolutions issued by the council, which is expected to vote on the new sanctions in the coming days.

These sanctions are, in fact, unprecedented in that they were agreed upon by the U.S. and China, North Korea's most important ally and a country that has regularly opposed past U.N. attempts to block the nuclear ambitions of Kim Jong Un and his autocratic regime.

Stronger sanctions have and continue to serve as a central tactic in addressing the most formidable challenge to U.S. foreign policy. (Interestingly enough, much of our recent international focus has been on Iran, a country that doesn't have any weapons of mass destruction, while we watch the North Koreans take repeated and sophisticated steps to grow their atomic arsenal.)

Up to this point, the Obama Administration has followed a policy toward North Korea that has been best described, in my view, as "strategic patience." The president and his advisors have been reluctant to engage in nuclear negotiations with the isolated nation, explaining that they will only do so if and when the North Koreans take measures to halt their nuclear program.

These terms, of course, make for a complete negotiation non-starter. Though its position on direct negotiations seems to be slowly changing, the administration continues to stick with its policy of strategic patience, even though this approach has not succeeded in slowing North Korea's march toward a larger nuclear arsenal.

According to current estimates, the North Koreans possess anywhere from 10-16 nuclear weapons and may be on the verge of fitting a nuclear warhead to a missile. Furthermore, North Korea remains totally isolated, immune from outside inspections and unwilling to accept the parameters of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which includes the U.S., China, Russia, the United Kingdom and France, among many other nations.

All of this begs that the U.S. adopt a more strategic, more expansive and more energetic approach toward preventing the North Koreans from further expanding their nuclear weapons capability. Indeed, I would recommend that the administration carefully consider several steps that would move us closer to denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, including:

Convincing the Chinese. Almost every expert turns to China as the perceived key to any appreciable change in the North Koreans' behavior. So far, though, China, which wants the North Korean leadership to survive, has proven to be intransient. The U.S. continues to try to push and persuade the Chinese to dial back their support, but until last week, the Chinese have regularly refused to endorse tougher international sanctions. I don't believe the Chinese want a nuclear-armed North Korea. I also don't believe they want North Korea to collapse. They fear that a fallen North Korea would incite an influx of North Korean refugees into China, thus causing great instability within their own borders. Even though our efforts to convince China to join us in tamping down the North Koreans nuclear program have been largely unsuccessful, those efforts should intensify, and it's through that lens that last week's proposed sanctions should be viewed as a step in the right direction.

Increasing sanctions. Tougher sanctions are definitely needed, and they require the support of the international community. They should include travel bans, indictment of key officials, freezing of North Korean assets and identifying which of those assets are held in Chinese banks. Recently, Congress overwhelmingly passed stricter sanctions intended to limit North Korea's ability to finance nuclear warheads. While sanctions remain a blunt, imprecise and difficult-to-enforce tactical tool, over time they can have a major impact. Few experts believe that sanctions in themselves will stop the North Koreans from moving ahead with growing their nuclear program, but the general consensus is that they have the potential of slowing them down.

Talk. Talk. Talk. The U.S. and its allies should steer the North Koreans to serious nuclear negotiations without conditions. While we should absolutely consider legitimate questions about the timing of such talks, we should not hold firm to the position that the North Koreans need to cede their nuclear weapons before we even initiate talks with them. Again, such a stance is a non-starter. Furthermore, we need to establish realistic expectations before we enter these talks. Simply put, we're not going to get the North Koreans to disarm, but we can and should seek to constrain them. Our focus should be on convincing the North Koreans to cease any missile testing and imposing significant costs on them if they continue to build upon their existing capabilities.

Remembering soft power. As we consider the North Korean challenge, we should be careful not to minimize the impact of what's known as "soft power," including increasing our cultural contacts and exchanges. While soft power rarely brings about rapid change, increasing our presence and engagement in and around the Korean peninsula through visible activities in the arts, athletics and other non-political areas promises to be extremely important as we deal with the most isolated country in the world. Remember, it wasn't that long ago that an exchange of ping pong players between the U.S. and China helped bring about a substantial thaw in U.S.-Sino relations, spawning the term "ping pong diplomacy."

Sticking to covert means. The notion of covert actions is always somewhat vague, but we shouldn't relinquish such measures, such as cyber-operations, as we seek to apply increased pressure on the North Koreans and degrade the industrial complexes that support the country's nuclear growth.

Exerting more overt military pressure. The U.S. and its allies must maintain control of the seas around South Korea. Equally important will be building up the security defenses of South Korea and Japan, including strengthening each country's anti-ballistic missile systems.

Sharpening our intelligence. We simply have to improve our intelligence capabilities within North Korea. Our lack of knowledge about the inner workings of the most isolated country in the world and our No. 1 enemy, has presented a major problem for decades. We should seek to support more non-governmental institutions getting into North Korea and look for ways to bring more information from inside the country back to the West and more information from the West into North Korea.

As formidable a challenge as North Korea continues to be -- and even though our current policy of strategic patience has not been effective -- we can take heart in knowing that we possess the knowledge and tools that will be required to slow down the country's nuclear program. Strengthening, energizing and mobilizing those tools will be paramount to thwarting North Korea's atomic ambitions, rallying the international community around a common goal and bringing about greater peace and stability to this important region of the world.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and Senior Advisor, IU Center on Representative Government. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.