Wendy Sherman on coercive diplomacy with North Korea

North Korea's Choice

Coercive diplomacy can prove to the regime it must change in order to survive.

By: Wendy R. Sherman 

June 23, 2017 

Words are inadequate for the pain and suffering American student Otto Warmbier and his family have endured. As a mother, I can only begin to imagine the heartbreak of learning a precious son, gone for so long, had been near death from nearly the beginning of his imprisonment in North Korea. And, now, he has died, his father in a press conference wearing the very jacket Otto wore on his last day of real life.

As a diplomat who visited Pyongyang twice during President Bill Clinton's administration and met for hours with Kim Jong Il, the current ruler's father, I understand that we must take a very sober and critical look at where we are today on American policy toward North Korea. For starters, all colleges, universities, tours and visitor programs should cease, immediately, all visits to North Korea. We should urge all of our partner countries to do likewise. It is simply too dangerous to go to Pyongyang. The Chinese program that brought Warmbier to North Korea has already stopped taking Americans. Quite frankly, that program and all others should stop taking anyone to Pyongyang.

Equally critically, the United States should be applying a whole-government approach to pressuring North Korea to deal with the world's concerns about its nuclear weapons, missiles and human rights abuses. We should be sending teams all over the world to shut down financial assets, enforce sanctions and interdict materials the regime uses for weapons. We should press the United Nations to do more. We should continue our exercises with South Korea and Japan, and array our military assets in a way that says we mean business. This includes missile defense systems. We should also use our intelligence and cyber capabilities in appropriate ways.

And, of course, we should be in a serious discussion with China. We know what China's concerns are about North Korea – a collapse that could leave American troops close to China and to loose nuclear weapons; millions of migrants crossing the border; economic pressures; and loss of a buffer country in Northeast Asia, among others. There are solutions for these concerns, albeit perhaps not perfect ones from China's perspective, but China could help immediately by insisting North Korea release other American prisoners

There is risk to applying pressure. But the alternative of war is worse. War would not only be catastrophic for Seoul – only 30 kilometers from the Demilitarized Zone and North Korea's forward-deployed million-man army and thousands of artillery rounds – but war would be catastrophic for China, since inevitably South Korea, with our help, would win, and China would most certainly lose any control.

Clearly, applying the necessary pressure, assumes close consultation with South Korea and with Japan. The new president of South Korea Moon Jae-In, due in Washington next week, has argued for engagement not pressure. And, indeed, a channel should remain open if North Korea should get serious. But unless we use all of the other tools in the diplomatic toolbox to focus North Korea on the choice it must make, no dialogue will be productive.

Today, North Korea believes it needs nuclear weapons to ensure its regime survival. But we must use coercive diplomacy to make sure North Korea understands its choice is nuclear weapons or regime survival; it cannot have both. And, North Korea also must know that the world will hold the regime accountable for the death of Otto Warmbier and for the torture, starvation and murder of so many North Koreans by the regime.