Nothing seems to upset North Korea more than being ignored. Hence Pyongyang's second nuclear test, punctuated by the separate firing of several short-range missiles.
Although the nuclear test reinforces the North's irresponsible reputation, the blast has little practical importance. North Korea has long been known to be a nuclear state and tested a smaller nuclear device over two years ago. The regime's missile capabilities also are well-known. Moreover, the tests may be tied to internal political considerations. "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke last August, raising questions as to who would be his successor. Although he appears to have recovered, both his ample gut and bouffant hair have thinned noticeably. He has yet to groom anyone to be his heir, as his father did him.
Kim may be attempting to make up for lost time. He recently added his brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek, to the National Defense Commission (NDC), currently the most important fount of state power. Twenty-seven-year-old Kim Jong Un, the youngest of Kim's three sons, is reportedly being prepared for a leadership position. Kim may be flaunting more hard-line international commitments-not only tossing out the six-party process, but also investment accords with South Korea-to solidify military support for his succession plans. In fact, by expanding the NDC's power Kim has enhanced the standing of NDC Vice Chairman General O Kuk Ryol, now seen by many as the regime's de facto number two.
In any case, Washington has few options. The U.S. military could flatten every building in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), but even a short war would be a humanitarian catastrophe and likely would wreck Seoul, South Korea's industrial and political heart. America's top objective should be to avoid, not trigger, a conflict. Today's North Korean regime seems bound to disappear eventually. Better to wait it out, if possible.
Which forces the United States to rely on diplomacy. John Bolton, among others, argues that the North's actions prove that the country is not interested in a negotiated settlement. Yet brinkmanship has always been Pyongyang's favorite modus operandi. Kim likely hopes that the tests will move his nation to the top of President Barack Obama's "to do" list, as well as raise the price Kim can charge for his cooperation. A deal certainly is further away-indeed, more unlikely than ever-but is still possible.
Unfortunately, President Obama got off on the wrong track by overstating the danger when he declared that "North Korea's nuclear and ballistic-missile programs pose a great threat to the peace and security of the world." In fact, the DPRK's missiles are no different from those possessed by a number of countries, and Pyongyang does not appear to have yet mastered the nuclear-weaponization process, let alone the miniaturization procedure necessary to marry warhead and missile.
Instead, Washington should treat the North's latest actions as an opportunity to reprogram the latter's negotiating formula. The United States should not reward Kim with a plethora of statements beseeching the regime to cooperate and threatening dire consequences for its bad behavior. A Russian official correctly warned against a "hysterical" response. North Korea undoubtedly is gratified at becoming the center of international attention. America, South Korea and Japan all have had to focus on what otherwise would be an impoverished, starving and irrelevant political backwater.
Similarly mistaken was the emergency UN Security Council meeting. There was no emergency: the North Korean tests changed nothing and threatened no one. True, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "stressed the importance of a strong, unified approach to this threat to international peace and security," said Department spokesman Ian Kelly, but then, the secretary took the same position last month after the North's long-range missile test. Then, after a week of meetings, the Security Council came up with a nonbinding statement urging members to really enforce the sanctions previously approved. That likely caused more contempt than fear in Pyongyang. A repeat will do neither America nor its friends any good.
Nor is it obvious that tighter sanctions would work very well. A regime that has allowed at least a half million, and perhaps more, of its citizens to starve is not likely to worry about its people suffering further hardship. Perhaps the People's Republic of China (PRC), which supplies much of the North's food and fuel, could bring the Kim regime to heel. But maybe not.
Anyway, thus far the PRC has worried more about the consequences of a North Korean economic collapse than a North Korean nuclear weapon. Beijing said that it "is resolutely opposed to the test," but whether that means it is willing to adopt a tougher stance toward the DPRK remains to be seen. Senator John McCain has already called on China to put more pressure on the North and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans on raising the issue during her current visit to Beijing. Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation even argues that far from praising the PRC for its aid, the United States should criticize Beijing's "obstructionism to carrying out the will of the international community as expressed in two U.N. resolutions."
It is easy for the United States and other states to dismiss China's concerns. However, imagine how Washington would react if countries a continent away demanded that the United States adopt policies that could wreck Mexico and send millions of starving refugees across America's southern border. U.S. officials might react less than enthusiastically.