"War" With North Korea Averted By American "Strategic Patience," But What Now?

In recent weeks, the bombast and bluster from North Korea has reached a fevered pitch, with threats of nuclear annihilation emerging almost daily from the reclusive Stalinist state. With the movement of ballistic missiles to the North's eastern coast, the threat of war would seem to be one miscalculation away.

Oddly, however, tensions have begun to slowly recede in recent days. With the volume of the rhetoric having toned down somewhat in the past few week, many view the current American policy of "strategic patience" as successful. As the United States has recently begun vague calls for dialogue in conjunction with South Korea, it would seem that the worst has passed, and that talks between the North and the West will inevitably lead to some sort of compromise.

This, however, is a reductionist analysis of a terrifically intractable debate. Although North Korea’s military and civilian mouthpieces may not be calling for Seoul and Washington to be turned into a “sea of fire,” they have consistently labeled the North Korean nuclear arsenal as integral to the country’s national security interest, and that program will not be up for debate. Further, the North has declared that they will only come to the negotiating table upon the lifting of United Nations sanctions, something that the South Korean foreign ministry has called "absurd." The ad-hoc policy of strategic patience, then, has proven ineffective in getting the DPRK to drop its demands that its nuclear arsenal is off the table for any potential talks. It would seem, then, that strategic patience has only served to avert the very worst while still maintaining the underpinnings of what is simply a fundamentally unstable relationship.

The question on every Korea policy wonk's mind, then, is what will happen next? In the next few weeks, North Korea will in all likelihood launch some sort of provocative move, whether a benign missile or nuclear test or a belligerent (and difficult to trace) attack on the South. The current administration’s doctrine of strategic patience and "proportional response" will then do its best to protect allied interests while hopefully avoiding an escalation. This will act as an "exit ramp" for the North Korean leadership, allowing it to proclaim a measured victory to its people while also not being forced into a rhetorical corner and having to start a war that it knows it cannot win.

The true goal of strategic patience is to simply wait out the regime while putting China in something of an awkward position. With America having deployed Aegis destroyers, missile defense batteries, and stealth aircraft in South Korea and Japan in fulfilment of American security obligations in the event of a possible attack, China inevitably views these actions as indicative of American efforts to contain its growing military presence. Given, however, the current tensions with North Korea, American leaders will undoubtedly offer China a choice: either accept an increased American military presence to deter the DPRK, or lean on the regime to give up its nuclear program. Either choice will hopefully (in the eyes of American policymakers) lead to a scenario in which the North's regime begins to fissure in the face of either crippling Chinese pressure, conflict over how to respond to American military drills, or factional infighting. As the name would imply, however, strategic patience will most likely not yield an end-all-be-all solution as a result of this current crisis, but will hopefully give time for the regime to crack in the next few months or years.