The North Koreans have been busy, testing a nuclear weapon and shooting off missiles. It seems that nothing upsets North Korea more than being ignored.
President Barack Obama expressed the usual outrage:
These actions, while not a surprise given its statements and actions to date, are a matter of grave concern to all nations. North Korea's attempts to develop nuclear weapons, as well as its ballistic missile program, constitute a threat to international peace and security.
However, this really is all old news. Although the nuclear test reinforces the North’s irresponsible reputation, the blast has little practical importance. North Korea has long been known to be a nuclear state and tested a smaller nuclear device a couple years ago. The regime’s missile capabilities also are well-known.
Contrary to the president's excited rhetoric, the North has little ability to project force beyond the Korean peninsula. So Washington should treat the North’s latest offense as an opportunity to reprogram the latter’s negotiating formula.
The U.S. should not reward “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il with a plethora of statements beseeching the regime to cooperate and threatening dire consequences for its bad behavior. Rather, the Obama administration should explain, perhaps through China, that the U.S. is interested in forging a more positive relationship with North, but that no improvement will be possible so long as North Korea acts provocatively. Washington should encourage South Korea and Japan to take a similar stance.
Moreover, the U.S. should step back and suggest that China, Seoul, and Tokyo take the lead in dealing with Pyongyang. North Korea’s activities more threaten its neighbors than America. Even Beijing, the North’s long-time ally, long ago lost patience with Kim’s belligerent behavior and might be willing to support tougher sanctions.
Washington should offer to support this or other efforts to reform North Korean policy. But without Chinese backing there is little else the U.S. can do. War on the peninsula would be disastrous for all, and Washington has few additional sanctions to apply. Beijing has the most leverage on Pyongyang, but whether even that is enough to moderate North Korea's behavior is anyone's guess.
North Korea is a problem likely to be long with us. The U.S. has limited ability to influence the North. Washington should offer the prospect of improved relations as a reward for improved North Korean behavior, but should let the North’s neighbors, most notably China, take the lead in managing this most difficult of states.