The North Korean dance begins, again

Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) celebrates with scientists and technicians after the launch of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket carrying the second version of the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site in Cholsan county, North Pyongan province, in this undated picture released by the North's KCNA news agency December 15, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • If North Korea stays true to form, then the world should expect a third nuclear test within weeks

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  • America is thus getting perilously close to a red line

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  • “Good faith” with North Korea is of course an elastic concept, but the Obama administration was right not to rush into hasty agreements

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With most countries, one remembers dates, such as 1066 or 1776; with North Korea, one remembers U.N. resolutions. Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 2087, the seventh since 1993 concerning North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program. Like the other resolutions, it is empty and meaningless, and will do nothing to resolve a growing crisis on the Korean Peninsula. It’s time for Washington to grow up and either decide to put real pressure on North Korea or to admit diplomatic defeat and reserve the right to retaliate for any unprovoked North Korean aggression in the future.

There’s nothing new, either, in North Korea’s strident denunciations of the U.N. resolution, except perhaps its clarifying reiteration of the United States as a “hostile power” and enemy of the Korean people. Nor must any observers delude themselves into thinking that, simply because Beijing decided to support this resolution, China is in any way serious about crimping Kim Jong Un’s style. The Kim regime long ago figured out that China would much rather have an obstreperous and unbalanced quasi-theocratic totalitarian state controlling the northern half of the Korean Peninsula than trust that a reunified Korea would not somehow decide to side with the United States and possibly even Japan in the game of global geopolitics in Northeast Asia.

If North Korea stays true to form, then the world should expect a third nuclear test within weeks, as a sign of Pyongyang’s displeasure with the U.N.’s temerity to express, yet again, its opposition to North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. This will undoubtedly spur the United States, China and other nations in the region to act upon the U.N.’s repeated desire to restart the Six-Party Talks, despite their having achieved nothing in the decade since they began. Instead, Washington will likely once again prove that it has caught itself in a “dialogue trap,” in which the end goal of dealing with North Korea remains maintaining the forms of diplomatic interaction, regardless of their lack of content.

Yet even if America and its allies, along with China, have not learned any new tricks, Pyongyang is not standing still. Indeed, its successful ballistic missile launch last December now gives it the confidence to begin increasing the range and payload of its long-range missiles. As it allegedly has in the past, North Korea will likely sell these weapons, first to Iran, its longtime partner in weapons proliferation, but also potentially to other nations with the cash to pay for “Made in North Korea” goods. In addition, conducting a third nuclear test will only give the North Koreans more experience in handling nuclear technology, and move them further along the road to weaponizing their nuclear stockpile, so as to put it on top of their newly-credible missiles.

America is thus getting perilously close to a red line, in which an aggressive and hostile rogue regime will have the means to target at least some of the American homeland. Most observers would find it easy to conclude that Kim Jong Un, like his father and grandfather before him, is crazy like a fox, and therefore would do nothing to precipitate the almost certain destruction of him and his regime should he be foolish enough to let an errant missile land in Los Angeles. Yet given that this is a leadership that only several years ago sunk a South Korean naval ship, killing more than 40 sailors, not to mention kidnapped dozens of South Korean and Japanese citizens over the decades, only someone professing to have a crystal ball or a backyard nuclear shelter should feel comfortable making such an assumption.

What should we do? One suggestion is to return to the Bush-era financial sanctions on the Kim family and other leaders of the regime that caused such consternation a decade ago and seemingly led to the North Koreans agreeing to serious negotiations. However, the Bush administration gave up its leverage soon after dialogue began, and the North returned to its old tricks. Hitting the Kim pocketbook seems to be one way to get the regime’s attention.

Another suggestion is to take a page from the Obama Administration’s early treatment of North Korea, refusing to enter into negotiations until the regime showed some good faith. “Good faith” with North Korea is of course an elastic concept, but the Obama administration was right not to rush into hasty agreements; the fact that it did so soon after Kim Jong Un took power last year and was rewarded with yet another broken agreement, proves the wisdom of its first course.

Yet perhaps it’s time for America and its allies to grow up, and admit that, now that North Korea has nuclear weapons and functional ballistic missiles, there’s nothing we can do to prevent them from building a force as large as they want. The North will not denuclearize, nor will it give up its long-range missiles. Therefore, the United States should make it very clear that it is done negotiating and reserves the right to annihilate the North Korean military (and regime) should South Korea or Japan, or the U.S. for that matter, be attacked by North Korea’s nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles.

Some would say that is containment, while others would recoil from the de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power. It would however have the saving grace of being the only realistic path to come out of nearly two decades of failed diplomacy. It would mean neither more nor less than the stalemate we’ve been living with since 1993, and is perhaps the only way to let the North Koreans know we are serious about protecting our interests.

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About the Author

 

Michael
Auslin
  • 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 wsj.com. 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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