President Barack Obama's more accommodating diplomacy was on view during his recent trip to Europe. But North Korea's missile launch-and the UN Security Council's minimal response-demonstrate the limits of international support for Washington's policies.
From its birth six decades ago, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been a difficult actor. Pyongyang launched the Korean War and routinely heated up the cold war. Even today, in a dramatically changed international environment, the North's modus operandi remains perpetual brinkmanship.
The tortuous negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program crashed if not burned last winter, stalling over verification procedures for Pyongyang's official nuclear declaration. After demolishing the cooling tower of an older nuclear reactor, Kim Jong-il's government announced it was freezing its denuclearization efforts. The Obama administration hopes to rejuvenate the six-party talks, but the way forward is uncertain.
The Kim regime itself is at risk. Kim suffered a stroke in August; he has recovered enough to appear in public, but both his rotund figure and bouffant hairdo have thinned noticeably. Speculation on a potential heir runs rife in a system as complex as the old Ottoman Empire. Some analysts point to his youngest son as the likeliest successor, while Kim recently named his brother-in-law to the influential military commission. Most probable is some form of collective leadership, in which the military would enjoy enhanced influence, making any diplomatic settlement even less likely. Moreover, the U.S.-North Korean agenda is getting cluttered. Two American journalists were arrested after straying into DPRK territory; Pyongyang says they will be tried for espionage. It will be difficult for the Obama administration to improve relations with the North if Americans are imprisoned by the North.
Even more provocative was the DPRK's recent missile launch. As an attempt to either place a satellite into space or test an intercontinental missile, the effort was a failure. Indeed, the botched effort demonstrates how far has to go to perfect an ICBM, suggesting that the North poses a less than formidable military threat. Marine Corp General James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, snickered: "On the idea of proliferation, would you buy from somebody that had failed three times in a row and never been successful?"
As a step designed to win international attention, however, the test was far more successful, creating the usual public frenzy in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. South Koreans felt betrayed, while the Japanese tightened their sanctions on the North. The United States denounced the launch as illegal and went to the United Nations for redress. "This provocation underscores the need for action," declared President Obama: "I urge North Korea to abide fully by the resolutions of the UN Security Council and to refrain from further provocative actions." UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon complained that the launch was "not conducive to efforts to promote dialogue, regional peace and stability," as if those were North Korea's objectives.
However, despite a demand for "strong, coordinated and effective response,"in the words of State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood, China and Russia exhibited their usual reluctance to crack down on the North, ensuring that little would come from the world body. Indeed, Beijing displayed far less irritation this time than in 2006, when it voted for Resolutions 1695 and 1718, which barred further missile development by the DPRK, and its criticism of the launch did not stop it from congratulating Kim Jong-il on his pro forma reelection as chairman of the National Defense Commission. With China's UN ambassador calling for "calm" and "restraint," the Security Council approved a resolution insisting on little more than enforcement of previously approved sanctions.
Moreover, this controversy is destined to set back any renewal of the six-party nuclear talks. For President Obama to pick up negotiations where the Bush administration left off would open him to charges of appeasement. Moreover, the toothless UN resolution triggered the usual angry DPRK response. Pyongyang promised to restart its shuttered reactor and leave the international nuclear negotiations for good.
What should Washington do?
The Obama administration needs to realistically assess the conundrum that is North Korea. So far Kim has outlasted two presidents; his father was confronting his ninth American president when he died. The likelihood of President Obama making a deal missed by everyone else is low. That doesn't mean negotiations are not worth pursuing. But it does suggest the value of downplaying any expectations of changing North Korea, which reflect the triumph of hope over experience.
Moreover, America should step back and let others take the lead in dealing with Pyongyang. Despite the hysteria routinely generated by the DPRK's antics, North Korea's reach is limited. A desperately poor, isolated state with an antiquated military, it poses far greater problems for its neighbors than for America.
Only South Korea is within reach of the North's army-a good reason for the United States to withdraw its troops, since they have not been needed to safeguard the Republic of Korea (ROK) for years. (Seoul enjoys a vast economic, technological, population and diplomatic edge over the North.) Japan, along with the ROK, is vulnerable to North Korean missiles. China and the South both fear a violent DPRK collapse and flood of desperate, starving refugees. Beijing also suffers from the nightmare of spreading nuclear proliferation which could result in Japan developing nuclear weapons.