Playing Pyongyang's games

Korean Central News Agency

Kim Jong Un inspects Air Force Unit 354, Jan. 2012.

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  • #Obama must not embolden #NorthKorea and turn the other cheek in response to their #missile test @michaelauslin

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  • The gamble failed - President Obama is where Presidents Clinton and Bush were before him, but with a new Kim regime

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  • The best path is to accept that we're back to playing #Pyongyang's games, but refuse to follow the rules #NorthKorea

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It took barely two weeks for North Korea to play its old game of bait and switch, this time gutting the Feb. 29 "Leap Day Agreement" with the Obama administration that promised a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing. In an Ides of March announcement, Pyongyang revealed it would conduct a "satellite launch" on April 15, which coincides with the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, founder of the North Korean regime.

Such a disguised missile test not only violates U.N. resolutions, it forces U.S. President Barack Obama either to swallow a brazen insult or scrap a deal he hoped would show his leadership in resolving the long-running nuclear crisis. The president must resist the temptation to turn the other cheek. If he fails to do so, North Korea's new leadership will be emboldened to more reckless behavior.

In a sense, the Obama administration has only itself to blame for this mess. For three years, it wisely avoided playing Pyongyang's games. Unlike the Bush administration, which became increasingly desperate to patch holes in a flawed policy of making ever more concessions for little in return, the Obama team kept contact with former leader Kim Jong Il at a minimum, and refused to enter the Alice in Wonderland world of reaching agreement with the North only to face provocation and demands for more concessions.

All that seemed to change with death late last year of Kim Jong Il and the accession of his youngest son, Kim Jong Eun. The sudden February agreement seemed an incomplete attempt to stop nuclear activity at one site in North Korea, along with missile tests, in exchange for several hundred thousand tons of food aid. The agreement was a gamble by the Obama administration that an overture to the new leader could break the logjam over the nuclear crisis, and also be a foreign policy coup for the president heading into an election year.

The gamble failed, and President Obama finds himself squarely where Presidents Clinton and Bush were before him. The administration was mistaken in thinking that Kim the younger would be any different from his father. In all likelihood, Kim Jong Eun is a figurehead, controlled by his powerful uncle and senior military leaders. The Kim regime is a corporate entity, running the North's illicit economy, and the younger Kim is but a front for the Board of Directors. Thus, any American hope that a Pyongyang Spring was coming to the North was bound to be dashed.

Pyongyang is doing two things at once to force a new crisis: trying to circumvent U.N. bans on any missile testing, and testing how much the Obama administration will give away to keep the fig leaf of diplomatic progress. A "satellite" launch on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile may be technically different from a regular missile launch, but the result is the same—the North is seeking de facto U.S. approval to flout U.N. resolutions. It also is a reminder that the crisis with the North has always been about nukes and missiles together, not just nuclear weapons alone.

There are few good options for the White House. If President Obama accepts the satellite launch at face value, and refuses to halt food aid, then the North will have won a significant victory and almost certainly will move to speed up its ballistic missile program, which has Iran as one of its key potential customers. Moreover, Pyongyang will almost certainly attempt new provocations to get more aid from Washington.

Yet if the Obama administration refuses to provide the promised aid, the North is unlikely to back down fully, fearing a loss of face for its new leader. Not only will it likely conduct the missile test, it may use the American decision as a pretext to do more nuclear tests. Either of these would lead to a further crisis where the North will demand more U.S. concessions.

The best path forward to is to accept that we're back to playing Pyongyang's games, but refuse to follow the rules. If the North launches its satellite, the U.S. should refuse to provide any food aid, but also cut off any further negotiations with Kim Jong Eun. That will force Pyongyang to decide if isolation serves its purposes best. Let the pieces sit where they are, since any further move will only result in further cheating by the North.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

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