When it became clear that the Taepodong 2 missile North Korea test-launched early on July 4 had broken up less than a minute into flight and plunged into the Sea of Japan, many Americans felt a sense of relief. After all, the missile — belonging to a class that is thought capable of reaching the U.S. mainland — had failed, and Kim Jong Il had been embarrassed in the eyes of the world, if not those of the North Koreans who were told nothing of the test’s outcome. But an embarrassed menace is a menace nonetheless. Despite North Korea’s failure this week — and regardless of whether it launches another long-range missile, as some reports indicate it is preparing to do — Kim’s regime is a greater threat now than it has ever been.
Responding successfully to that threat will require, first, a recognition that Kim almost surely cannot be negotiated out of his nuclear program. President Bush has been right to pursue multilateral talks with Pyongyang rather than acquiesce in the bilateral negotiations that Kim desired: Direct talks would have seemed a concession to North Korean pressure, and would have strengthened Kim’s position. But the six-party talks — involving, in addition to North Korea and the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Russia, and China — have been suspended since September, and have not brought Kim an inch closer to forswearing his nuclear aims. Resuming the negotiations may not be intrinsically harmful, but neither is it likely to advance our interests. Kim knows that North Korea’s economy, as well as his power, depends on the combination of selling arms to rogue states and extorting aid from alarmed neighbors. He cannot defang himself without endangering his survival.
In the wake of the test, Japan has threatened punitive economic measures against North Korea: It may block the remittances that North Koreans living in Japan send home, as well as push for sanctions in the U.N. Security Council. But any serious United Nations response is likely to fall to a Chinese or Russian veto. South Korea too has proved willing to prop up Pyongyang no matter how outrageous its deeds, and would probably oppose sanctions. The U.S. should do everything it can to extract a high diplomatic price from these countries if they continue their reckless appeasement. China and Russia should be made to understand that their relations with the West depend on their acting responsibly; and South Korea should be asked, in blunt terms, how long it expects the U.S. to defend it from the threat it helps perpetuate. Even so, the reality is that sanctions are unlikely for the foreseeable future. And airstrikes against the nuclear sites involve risks that the United States cannot wisely take: Kim Jong Il is, unfortunately, correct when he boasts that his regime has achieved a military deterrent.
What this means is that the U.S. is probably stuck with Kim for a while to come. Our policy should accordingly be one of containing Kim’s regime and undermining its power. Perhaps the greatest danger is that North Korea will transfer its missile technology to other regimes that would use it to threaten us. Kim continues to arm Iran, and he is also forging an alliance with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, who is to visit Pyongyang later this month. Kim and Chavez are expected to strike a deal in which North Korea would provide conventional arms to Venezuela in exchange for energy assistance (which would vitiate the effects of sanctions against North Korea even if we could secure them). There is a very real possibility that, at Kim’s initiative, the regimes most hostile to the U.S. will form an alliance backed by North Korean missile technology. Preventing that outcome will require decisive action to thwart Iran’s atomic ambitions before the mullahs possess a deterrent like Kim’s, and redoubling our efforts to see them removed from power. It will require us to move more aggressively to isolate Hugo Chavez. And it will require us to block any North Korean arms shipments to client states in the Americas.
The last goal could be advanced by more serious enforcement of the Proliferation Securities Initiative, a U.S.-led effort to interdict transfers of banned weapon technology. In practice, the PSI has done almost nothing to stop North Korean arms shipments, possibly for fear of damaging the six-party talks. It’s time to cast such reservations aside. In addition, the U.S. should step up its already successful efforts to cut off North Korea’s overseas financial assets. If China, Russia, and South Korea are unwilling to bless outright sanctions, they should at least be expected to support these measures — and informed that obstinacy will seriously damage their standing with the U.S.
Finally, the U.S. should continue to advance its missile-defense capabilities — by continuing development of land- and sea-based interceptors, and by jumpstarting research on space-based missile defense. Our current system is a long way from neutralizing North Korea’s threat, but that must be our goal.
As long as Kim’s Stalinist regime clings to power, it will endanger us. But if the United States and its allies have the will to confront that danger, it can be overcome just as successfully as the danger posed by its ideological forbears.