While media attention is understandably concentrated this week on the Iranian terrorist plot, the White House—at least for today—is rightly focusing on South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Washington. Yesterday, Lee attended a lunch co-hosted by Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, and today he will be feted with an Oval Office meeting with the president, the opportunity to speak to a joint meeting of Congress, and a state dinner at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Although Seoul and Washington have had their differences over the years, such treatment is reserved for America’s closest allies. The speedy movement through Congress of the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement—passed yesterday, with bipartisan support, to coincide with Lee’s visit—provides further proof of the relationship’s importance.
Indeed, the long-delayed FTA will be viewed as the “big win” for this visit, and rightly so. But the most important conversations that Lee holds with his American counterpart may well be about North Korea.
Pyongyang continues to puzzle South Korean and American strategists alike. A nuclear North Korea is deemed unacceptable by both nations, yet efforts at denuclearization have been utterly unsuccessful. Both countries are intent on stopping future North Korean provocations, yet seem to believe they have limited options for doing so. Seoul and Washington share a long-term interest in peaceful unification of the peninsula under Seoul’s leadership, yet they lack a strategy for bringing about that outcome.
In this month’s AEI Asian Outlook, I put forth suggestions for constructing a new allied strategy for dealing with North Korea. I propose a two-track strategy, which I argue can achieve all of Washington and Seoul’s primary goals with respect to the North. As I write, “Track One is a coercive military strategy designed to alter North Korean behavior in the short term. Track Two is a long-term effort aimed at eventually bringing down the Kim Jong Il regime in a way that facilitates a successful and ideally peaceful reunification.”
North Korea has been literally getting away with murder for far too long (not to mention proliferation, counterfeiting, and crimes against humanity), and efforts to alter Pyongyang’s behavior have failed. With a third nuclear test potentially in the works, the movement of North Korean forces closer to the maritime border with the South, and U.S. PACOM commander Admiral Willard warning of further provocations, it’s clear that a new direction in strategy is sorely needed. Sooner rather than later.