The Corner

North Korean Two-Fer? From Bad to Worse

Washington is already in mini-crisis mode over North Korea’s planned launch of a “satellite” (actually, an intercontinental ballistic missile) either this week or next, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, founder of the hermit state. Now comes word from South Korea that Pyongyang may also be planning another nuclear test. This would be its third, after tests in 2006 and 2009, and is of course banned by U.N. resolutions, as well as the February 29 pact with the Obama administration. That quickly unraveling agreement stopped nuclear work at North Korea’s main Yongbyon nuclear site but also required the North to implement a moratorium on nuclear-weapons testing.

If the South’s reports turn out to be true, and the U.S. shares the assessment, then the February 29 agreement is more than dead — this week could mark the gravest crisis in relations with North Korea in years. First is the sheer effrontery of Pyongyang, which should have been no surprise to anyone who’s paid the slightest attention to the regime over the past, say, several decades. It should be impossible for any U.S. administration ever to negotiate with the North again, given the brazen lack of good faith. Of course, this whole crisis was an unforced error on the part of the Obama administration, so if diplomacy is a victim of the North’s latest bait-and-switch, then the U.S. can be credited with an assist (to mix sports metaphors).

#more#Secondly, both South Korea and Japan are getting increasingly antsy as the North sticks its finger in our collective eye and sits back, comfortable in the knowledge that we will do nothing to punish it. Pyongyang still has a sugar-daddy in Beijing that keeps it humming along economically, and even abets its illegal proliferation activities by allowing transshipment across Chinese territory, according to various reports. Both Seoul and Tokyo are posturing to try and shoot down the missile, if it seems to be threatening to land on or near their territory. Each is deploying anti-missile ships and land-based interceptors (which probably wouldn’t work), and is, quite frankly, waiting to hear whether Washington will join efforts to blow the missile out of the sky. Even if they take no action this time, our allies are inching closer and closer to doing something by themselves one of these days, in part because they are losing faith in U.S. security guarantees and in part out of frustration.

A nuclear test, condemned by every world body except the Iranian Parliament, would send shock waves through South Korea and Japan, and would put enormous pressure on Washington to do something in response. It would lay to rest any thoughts that North Korea under Kim Jong Eun was even remotely disposed to acting in a way that could possibly bring about even a modicum of stability in the region. Yet, any boilerplate from the White House about “calming the situation” would be seen as a sign of further weakness by the North, the South, the Japanese, and probably the Chinese, too. 

The problem is, as veterans of these crises often say, that North Korea is the land of Bad Choices. Response on our part (as I argued in favor of last week in the Wall Street Journal) might lead to further retaliation — though I personally doubt that, given the North’s wily ability to pull back from the brink at the very last second. On the other hand, inaction clearly abets the North’s sense of invulnerability and, quite possibly, luck. We allowed ourselves years ago to be maneuvered into this cycle of negotiations-broken agreements-further negotiations, and after resisting the temptation for several years, the Obama administration went right back in. Now the stakes are getting higher, as the new leader has the chance this week to set the tone of the relationship for decades. Any move by Washington to try and accommodate the North in the interests of “peace” will signify the U.S.’s acceptance of North Korea’s aggressive behavior.

If we are faced with only Bad Choices, that doesn’t mean No Choices. First, we should blow the missile out of the sky. The Kim regime knows that if it escalates, and starts a war, U.S. and South Korean troops will be in Pyongyang in three days and Kim Jong Eun won’t celebrate his six-month anniversary of taking power. It will also set the precedent, once we realize the world won’t end, of blowing up every North Korean missile launch, interdicting every North Korean ship at sea, and when possible, forcing down every suspect North Korean airplane. And, it will do more to stabilize our alliances with Seoul and Tokyo than anything else we could do.

Second, President Obama should announce that there will be no more negotiations with Pyongyang on any matter whatsoever until it has unilaterally ended its nuclear and missile programs for at least five years. No aid of any kind, no talks, no secret meetings in New York or European locales attended by retired diplomats and wise men. With its actions after February 29, Pyongyang has forfeited the right for diplomatic intercourse. Diplomacy is not, and should not be, a blank check. We are under no moral compulsion to talk with the North Korean regime again.

None of this may solve the current and escalating crisis. But neither will our current path. In the large scheme of things, North Korea is a deeply unimportant, tiny little country. It has eaten up billions of U.S. dollars for decades; consumed hundreds of thousands of man-hours of intelligence gathering, analysis, political decision making, and negotiation; and forced us to permanently deploy tens of thousands of U.S. troops. And yet, if we all went home tomorrow, except to reach out and smack down the regime when it misbehaved, nothing material would change in northeast Asia. It’s time to reframe our game.


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