It’s fascinating to see the ideological blinders slipping a bit in the Obama administration. First the president had to acknowledge that his efforts to reach out to Iran were going nowhere; now a similar outreach effort to North Korea mounted over many years by South Korea has been officially declared DOA. South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, is suspending a large measure of the South’s trade with the North, barring Northern ships from entering Southern waters, ramping up propaganda aimed at the North, and taking other steps to signal displeasure with the North’s sinking of a Southern frigate, which resulted in the loss of 46 sailors. The Obama administration, to its credit, is offering “unequivocal” support for the South’s get-tough policy, including agreeing to hold joint military maneuvers.
Such measures are necessary but insufficient. No one imagines they will seriously change the behavior of Kim Jong-il’s rogue regime. That kind of change is probably beyond our power to impose; only China has the leverage needed to really punish the North, and it won’t exercise that leverage for fear of accelerating the North’s collapse. Nevertheless, it would make sense to set a long-term goal for U.S. and South Korea policy — to bring about the peaceful collapse of North Korea.
That is something that South Korea has long been ambivalent about; the South Koreans are keenly aware of how much German unification cost, and they know that North Korea will be even tougher to integrate than East Germany was. But the Cheonan‘s sinking shows that the status quo has significant costs too.
Likewise, when it comes to Iran, the Obama administration needs to stop pretending that a fourth watered-down UN sanctions resolution is going to achieve anything. Here, too, the administration needs to set peaceful regime change as the goal for American policy. In neither case is regime change a panacea; the rulers in both Tehran and Pyongyang are firmly entrenched in power and will not easily be dislodged despite their lack of popular support. It will be a long, difficult process to help the peoples of North Korea and Iran to liberate themselves. All the more reason, then, to make this a priority for American policy now rather than succumbing to more wishful thinking about the possibilities of “engagement” with these criminal regimes.