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Dealing with North Korea

Ready for launch

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North Korea’s missile, launched last night, reached a height of 93 miles, soaring for just one minute before breaking apart and falling into the Yellow Sea. The Obama administration’s policy of outreach toward North Korea has suffered roughly the same fate.

Earlier this year, some commentators enthusiastically greeted the “Leap Day agreement,” in which American food aid was exchanged for North Korea’s halting its nuclear program. One former South Korean ambassador hailed it as “the first major step forward taken by the two countries since President Obama came into office” and insisted that the deal “says a lot about the way the Kim Jong Un regime is going to operate.” Of course, last night’s launch says much more about the way the new leader will operate. Meet the new boss, evil and manipulative as the old boss.

This development is almost as visibly damning as if, amidst Obama’s attempts at a “reset,” Russia reinvaded the Caucasus. The rocket’s launch was ostensibly intended to put a satellite into orbit, which would have required reaching a height of more than 300 miles, but was assuredly a backdoor ballistic-missile test.

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The people of North Korea — who suffer unspeakable deprivation to provide for the indulgences of their ruling class, such as this $1 billion boondoggle — will likely be told that the launch was somehow a success, but it is possible that the failure will stoke some dissent in the top echelons of the Communist party or the army. Those fissures, however, should not be taken as yet another opportunity to negotiate with the regime. The aftermath of Kim Jong Il’s death, when he was replaced by his young and inexperienced son, was taken as such a pregnant moment for negotiations, and we know how that turned out. 

The failure holds the regime up to ridicule, but even in industrialized nations, missile tests fail all the time. We shouldn’t take North Korea any less seriously. In fact, the failed launch may increase the likelihood of another nuclear test, sooner rather than later. It is now clearer than ever that the U.S. should return to turning all the screws we can on the key parties in North Korea: the Kim family and top party and army officials. In response to the launch announcement, the U.S. withdrew its recent offer of $200 million in food aid, but this is not harsh enough. The Bush administration’s approach of financial sanctions on Pyongyang’s privileged class began to pay dividends before Bush himself abandoned it. The sanctions should be reinstated. That will not necessarily prevent more incidents, but it will clearly be more effective, and less enabling, than the current approach of serial deals leading nowhere.

The only opening, in fact, could come not from agreements with the North Korean leadership, which is congenitally dishonest, but from trying to persuade China that supporting North Korea is not in its best interest, and that reunification of the Korean peninsula is. The dissent that matters is within the Chinese Communist Party, where a younger generation of leaders may be more open to cutting ties with North Korea, which cannot survive on its own. Short of that, all that will be on offer from North Korea are bellicosity, lies, and vile repression.



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