President Barack Obama's more accommodating diplomacy was on view during his recent trip to Europe. But North Korea's missile launch—and the UN Security Council's minimal response—demonstrate the limits of international support for Washington's policies.
From its birth six decades ago, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been a difficult actor. Pyongyang launched the Korean War and routinely heated up the cold war. Even today, in a dramatically changed international environment, the North's modus operandi remains perpetual brinkmanship.
The tortuous negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program crashed if not burned last winter, stalling over verification procedures for Pyongyang's official nuclear declaration. After demolishing the cooling tower of an older nuclear reactor, Kim Jong-il's government announced it was freezing its denuclearization efforts. The Obama administration hopes to rejuvenate the six-party talks, but the way forward is uncertain.
The Kim regime itself is at risk. Kim suffered a stroke in August; he has recovered enough to appear in public, but both his rotund figure and bouffant hairdo have thinned noticeably. Speculation on a potential heir runs rife in a system as complex as the old Ottoman Empire. Some analysts point to his youngest son as the likeliest successor, while Kim recently named his brother-in-law to the influential military commission. Most probable is some form of collective leadership, in which the military would enjoy enhanced influence, making any diplomatic settlement even less likely. Moreover, the U.S.-North Korean agenda is getting cluttered. Two American journalists were arrested after straying into DPRK territory; Pyongyang says they will be tried for espionage. It will be difficult for the Obama administration to improve relations with the North if Americans are imprisoned by the North.
Even more provocative was the DPRK's recent missile launch. As an attempt to either place a satellite into space or test an intercontinental missile, the effort was a failure. Indeed, the botched effort demonstrates how far has to go to perfect an ICBM, suggesting that the North poses a less than formidable military threat. Marine Corp General James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, snickered: "On the idea of proliferation, would you buy from somebody that had failed three times in a row and never been successful?"
As a step designed to win international attention, however, the test was far more successful, creating the usual public frenzy in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. South Koreans felt betrayed, while the Japanese tightened their sanctions on the North. The United States denounced the launch as illegal and went to the United Nations for redress. "This provocation underscores the need for action," declared President Obama: "I urge North Korea to abide fully by the resolutions of the UN Security Council and to refrain from further provocative actions." UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon complained that the launch was "not conducive to efforts to promote dialogue, regional peace and stability," as if those were North Korea's objectives.
However, despite a demand for "strong, coordinated and effective response,"in the words of State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood, China and Russia exhibited their usual reluctance to crack down on the North, ensuring that little would come from the world body. Indeed, Beijing displayed far less irritation this time than in 2006, when it voted for Resolutions 1695 and 1718, which barred further missile development by the DPRK, and its criticism of the launch did not stop it from congratulating Kim Jong-il on his pro forma reelection as chairman of the National Defense Commission. With China's UN ambassador calling for "calm" and "restraint," the Security Council approved a resolution insisting on little more than enforcement of previously approved sanctions.
Moreover, this controversy is destined to set back any renewal of the six-party nuclear talks. For President Obama to pick up negotiations where the Bush administration left off would open him to charges of appeasement. Moreover, the toothless UN resolution triggered the usual angry DPRK response. Pyongyang promised to restart its shuttered reactor and leave the international nuclear negotiations for good.
What should Washington do?
The Obama administration needs to realistically assess the conundrum that is North Korea. So far Kim has outlasted two presidents; his father was confronting his ninth American president when he died. The likelihood of President Obama making a deal missed by everyone else is low. That doesn't mean negotiations are not worth pursuing. But it does suggest the value of downplaying any expectations of changing North Korea, which reflect the triumph of hope over experience.
Moreover, America should step back and let others take the lead in dealing with Pyongyang. Despite the hysteria routinely generated by the DPRK's antics, North Korea's reach is limited. A desperately poor, isolated state with an antiquated military, it poses far greater problems for its neighbors than for America.
Only South Korea is within reach of the North's army—a good reason for the United States to withdraw its troops, since they have not been needed to safeguard the Republic of Korea (ROK) for years. (Seoul enjoys a vast economic, technological, population and diplomatic edge over the North.) Japan, along with the ROK, is vulnerable to North Korean missiles. China and the South both fear a violent DPRK collapse and flood of desperate, starving refugees. Beijing also suffers from the nightmare of spreading nuclear proliferation which could result in Japan developing nuclear weapons.
At the same time, the United States should not let the perfect get in the way of the good. Unfortunately, Washington and North Korea's neighbors have only bad options in dealing with the brutal totalitarian state. It would be wonderful to create a democratic, humane DPRK. It is more important to avoid a new Korean war and cap any North Korean nuclear arsenal. Thus, the Obama administration should focus its efforts on halting any further North Korean nuclear developments. Whatever past agreements or future promises, convincing Pyongyang to yield its small atomic arsenal will require a geopolitical miracle. Only the DPRK's nuclear effort has caused anyone outside of South Korea to notice the North, a tragically impoverished and backward nation. Moreover, only possession of a nuclear capability offers North Korea real security from a preventive American attack. However, Pyongyang can do little with a small cache of nuclear weapons: attacking the United States would be suicidal, and Kim prefers his virgins in the here and now. In contrast, the North could do enormous damage with a large and growing stockpile of nuclear materiel, including underwriting widespread proliferation. To the extent the DPRK has been willing to deal, and comply with its promises—both in accepting the Clinton-era Agreed Framework and the later accord negotiated with the Bush administration—it has been to freeze its existing program, not yield the fruits of past production. Future negotiations should focus on the same end.
For the same reason, the United States must not get sidetracked by the North's missile program. As one American official anonymously declared: "we are not going to take our eye off of the ball or let them distract us from the goal, which is denuclearization." While the prospect of North Korea possessing advanced missile technology is unsettling, nuclear proliferation is the more important game. A decade ago Pyongyang put missile development on the negotiating table, but today Washington has as little chance of denying the DPRK access to newer and better missiles as in rolling back North Korea's nuclear program. The North long has had a substantial missile development program and many other countries of dubious reputation and intent possess similar technology.
Moreover, while President Bush opined that "Violations must be punished," it is not obvious that Pyongyang broke international law with its latest missile launch. The North's claim that the firing was intended to send a satellite into orbit arguably insulates this latest development from the missile development suspension mandated by Resolutions 1695 and 1718. After all, the Outer Space Treaty protects the peaceful use of space, a right seemingly left undisturbed by the two resolutions. The North's claim might be bogus—one can never go wrong in doubting the Kim regime's veracity—but ludicrous though it might seem, Pyongyang has a modest space program. Despite Washington's suspicions, the Obama administration has no proof one way or the other. Serious and concerted Security Council action, never likely, was further discouraged by this juridical uncertainty.
Finally, Washington needs to concentrate on changing the negotiating dynamic with North Korea before talking with Pyongyang. For years North Korea has used brinkmanship to win concessions. The United States and friendly states need to reverse this reward structure.
First, they should respond to the North's standard provocations with bored contempt rather than excited fear. Kim's behavior usually is choreographed foremost for domestic consumption, most obviously to bolster the regime's legitimacy amid the tragic consequences of horrendous misrule. For instance, the recent missile test occurred shortly before the rubber-stamp Supreme People's Assembly met in Pyongyang to reaffirm Kim's leadership. Ignoring rather than highlighting North Korean activities would have frustrated the DPRK's goal of dominating media headlines around the world. Calling an emergency session of the UN Security Council—which ostentatiously achieved nothing of importance—sent precisely the wrong message to Pyongyang.
Second, rather than publicly whining about the North's plans, fretting over the supposed threat posed, and demanding that the Kim regime desist from its plans, friendly nations should quietly inform Pyongyang that they will offer no benefits while it is ratcheting up tensions. If the DPRK responds positively, however, Washington should offer diplomatic recognition and the end of trade sanctions, small concessions in areas where punitive policies have manifestly failed. The prospect of a peace treaty with America, full normalization of political and economic relations with the United States, expanded trade with and aid from South Korea and Japan, and full participation in international institutions might beckon Pyongyang forward. Even if further agreements are not reached, little will have been lost. Indeed, both diplomatic ties and economic cooperation would offer American policy makers a useful window into North Korean society as well as a modest opportunity to introduce Western values in the North. The United States should have more directly engaged the DPRK years ago.
North Korea is a problem likely to be long with us. "We think it's important to send a strong message to North Korea that it can't act with impunity," said America's UN Ambassador Susan Rice. Yet the latest missile launch is but a minor issue between America and Pyongyang, dwarfed by both the North's nuclear program and its massive human-rights violations. The Obama administration should recognize the limitations inherent to any DPRK policy before formulating and implementing its own approach. If success is possible, it will come only slowly, painfully, and incrementally, and as a result of a limited agenda realistically implemented.