When Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Seoul today, those greeting him at the airport will be forgiven for having kept one eye peeled for North Korean missiles flying overhead. Kerry arrives at one of the tensest times in recent memory, as a month of North Korean threats to start war or use nuclear weapons is keeping everyone wondering what Pyongyang’s game plan really is. With regard to the Obama administration, Kerry’s visit will be crucial in setting the tone for the next several years of U.S. diplomacy in the region. Now, with a leaked Pentagon report that North Korea may have nuclear weapons it can place on top of its missiles, actions will speak louder than words in maintaining America’s credibility.
Kerry will be visiting America’s two main Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, in addition to China. Both Tokyo and Seoul are eager to hear not merely how Washington would plan to help defend them against North Korean rockets, but what the larger U.S. strategy is for dealing with Pyongyang. Moving advanced radars and ballistic-missile ships once again to Asia to potentially defend against errant missiles is one thing, but such crisis diplomacy and war preparation doesn’t solve the long-term threat posed by North Korea. If Kerry’s message is that America is ready to negotiate yet again with Pyongyang, the region will know that the Obama administration’s final four years will be filled with the meaningless charade of empty talks.
Similarly, if Kerry concludes that what is really needed is for Washington to engage China in the hopes that Beijing will rein in its client state, then Pyongyang will rejoice in getting another free pass. No matter how frustrated Chinese leaders may get with Kim Jong Un and his regime, the odds that they will do anything to undermine it are basically nil. Nor should Kerry try to get Japan and Korea to reach out to Beijing, for the allies should be far more focused on working together than chasing the dream of Chinese cooperation. Either Beijing can’t control North Korea, or it remains opposed to doing so; in either case, wasting time on Beijing takes away energy that can be put to better use.
Second, Kerry has to make clear that his words will be followed by actions. First, promise to shoot down the missile, if in any way possible. North Korea does not have the right to any launches, even for “peaceful” purposes. Pyongyang needs to be shown that the forces ranged against it will remove the sting from its threat. Second, make clear that any aggression against the South, such as the shelling of islands as in 2010, will be met with appropriate and equal responses. A new defense pact signed between Seoul and Washington last month is supposed to do that, but Kerry needs to reiterate that the rules have changed since 2010, and Pyongyang will not escape without some real punishment for its actions.
Third, Kerry should take this opportunity to get tough on Japan and South Korea, forcing them to put aside differences and work more closely on sharing intelligence, considering possible joint responses, and presenting a united front against Pyongyang. The time for old grievances is past, and both capitals must understand that America will not play this game of protecting their interests if they cannot learn to work together.
Fourth, Kerry should make clear that, missile launch or no, Washington will not be returning to any talks with North Korea, and will be ending all back-channel negotiation. Kerry has a great opportunity to show that Obama administration will not be played for suckers by the North. Should Kim Jong Un show a real change in policy, then of course, negotiations can be pursued. But short of the North unilaterally stopping its aggression and provocation, there is no reason to talk. If they threaten attacks, then the U.S. should welcome the chance to chastise the North should they be so stupid as to invite an armed response.
Finally, Kerry should make serious headway on financial sanctions aimed directly at the Kim regime. China cannot be allowed to water down U.N. sanctions, as it did again earlier this year. Nor should the U.S. be limited to U.N. avenues. If we are to show we are serious about crimping the style of the Kim mafia, then hitting their checkbook, as the Bush administration did for a time with the Banco Delta Asia sanctions, is the way to do it.
North Korea is unlikely to start a war, except through miscalculation. Yet it remains a real threat, and a constant drain on American and allied resources and time. If John Kerry, with the support of President Obama, can’t finally get tough and break the cycle of American conciliation of Pyongyang, then turn his plane around and bring him back home.