By Ian Rinehart Contributor March 28, 2011

The most recent attempt at inter-Korean dialogue collapsed shortly after it began, when the North Korean side declined the South Koreans’ demand that it apologize for its recent belligerent behavior. The Obama administration stuck to its guns and refrained from engaging the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in bilateral talks, which were contingent on positive developments with the South. Clearly, the US is committed to the policy of “strategic patience.” But does strategic patience benefit the US?

First, let us define this new approach. The Obama administration has declared that the United States will not engage with North Korea until it demonstrates positive, constructive behavior and a genuine willingness to negotiate. This commitment works in tandem with existing sanctions and the Proliferation Security Initiative established under President George W. Bush. The first and most obvious goal is not rewarding North Korea for provocation. Proponents of strategic patience assert that the new policy allows the United States to maintain the initiative and shape the environment for negotiation.

Some critics argue that the United States must find ways to punish the Kim regime for its belligerent acts. Others say that engagement is the only way forward and that preconditions for talks are unproductive. On a humanitarian level, the dire human rights abuses in North Korea call out for a response, although the notion that the United States can achieve anything in this area (beyond providing food and medical aid) is a dubious proposition.

The policy of strategic patience helps to resolve the Korean impasse in three ways. First, it devalues deadly provocations as means of attracting international attention. Second, it allows the United States and its allies to set positive terms for engagement. For example, more inter-Korean family reunions or the release of Japanese abductees would be constructive steps toward dialogue, as opposed to the cessation of negative behavior, such as a promise to stop artillery attacks. Lastly, the waiting game can be productive for the United States if it works assiduously and carefully to promote long-term trends that undermine the strength of the Kim regime and improve its bargaining position.

Strategic patience has one major flaw and two minor ones. The biggest downside is that the United States will not, cannot, denuclearize the Korean peninsula while it refrains from negotiations – and the North’s centrifuges continue to spin. Even those who reject negotiations as utterly futile should acknowledge, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has, that talking can be a form of containment. To America’s East Asian allies, the waiting game can look suspiciously like disengagement and possibly indifference. The last problem is that strategic patience raises the stakes of brinksmanship; if Kim Jong Il really wants to get America’s attention, to what lengths will he go?

The preceding discussion confirms that strategic patience is not without its drawbacks, but it has been, on balance, beneficial to the United States. Pursued without resolve, this approach could be ruinous; North Korea’s actions demand carefully calibrated responses – firm enough to show resolve but not to the point of escalation. However, the Obama administration has demonstrated the persistence and clarity necessary to make strategic patience effective. The United States has worked hand-in-hand with Japan and South Korea in its response to provocations, lobbied strategic partners China and Russia to rein in North Korea and, most importantly, not backed down from the threats continually emerging from Pyongyang.

The important point to keep in mind is that strategic patience is an approach, a policy; it is not a final solution. The United States has set conditions for bilateral negotiations (constructive talks with South Korea), and it will continue to wait until the Kim regime “unclenches its fist.” Perhaps North Korea’s dysfunctional economy and international isolation will remind Pyongyang of the value of aid and recognition. When the DPRK is ready to engage in good faith, the United States will return to the table ready to talk, ready to offer a comprehensive package of rewards for the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

This favorable assessment then begs the question, “Can the United States continue to pursue strategic patience successfully?” Unfortunately, the answer is not clear. If the danger of proliferation – from North Korea’s growing nuclear stockpile and from technology transfers to countries like Iran – becomes too great, the United States may be forced to abandon its principled stand and engage in bilateral talks. On the other hand, if strategic patience does pay off and induces talks on America’s terms, it could set the stage for a major diplomatic breakthrough.

Ian Rinehart is a first-year graduate student in the Security Policy Studies Program, focusing on East Asian security. He comes to GWU from working in the Fellowships Office at the Social Science Research Council in New York.

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