Same Old North Korea

Nothing has changed under Kim Jong-un. A major revision of U.S. policy is in order.

North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il, has been dead for more than a year, but his policies live on under his son, Kim Jong-un. Despite cosmetic changes—an attractive first lady carrying a designer purse—economic reform appears to remain mostly talk and political adjustments only affect the internal balance of power. Now the “Great Successor” is continuing his father’s policy of provocation, threatening to stage another nuclear test.

The official rhetoric also remains characteristic of the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The National Defense Commission explained: “We are not disguising the fact that the various satellites and long-range rockets we will launch, as well as the high-level nuclear test we will carry out, are targeted at the United States, the arch-enemy of the Korean people.” Moreover, “Settling accounts with the U.S. needs to be done with force, not with words.”

Although Pyongyang gave no specifics on its planned test, mid-February seems likely. That would mark Kim Jong-il’s birthday and preempt the inauguration of Park Geun-hye as South Korea’s new president.

So far the Obama administration’s reaction has been muted. Administration special envoy Glyn Davies was visiting Seoul and said: “We hope they don’t do it, we call on them not to do it. It would be a mistake and a missed opportunity if they were to do it. This is not a moment to increase tensions on the Korean peninsula.” White House press secretary Jay Carney denounced the North’s rhetoric as “needlessly provocative.”

Of course, the DPRK believes there never is a moment when it is not appropriate to increase tensions on the peninsula. And North Korean foreign policy is based on provocation.

Washington’s response should remain low-key. First, the administration should downplay the test’s significance, observing that it is nothing new. The North already has conducted two tests. Although no one wants Pyongyang to advance its nuclear program, the test will offer useful intelligence on the North’s progress.

Anyway, no amount of threatening, pleading, or whining will get Pyongyang to back down. To the contrary, the greater the reaction in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, the greater will be the Kim regime’s commitment to testing. One of the most important reasons that the North conducts these tests is to upset its adversaries.

Largely ignoring the event would reduce the DPRK’s reward. That won’t likely turn the Kim regime into a responsible international citizen. But it might reduce Pyongyang’s enthusiasm for scheduling a future test.

Second, the United States should not push for renewal of the Six Party talks. The North announced that it would not surrender its nuclear weapons until “the denuclearization of the world is realized.” This may well be yet another negotiating ploy. However, Washington and its allies should take it seriously.

Instead of begging Pyongyang to return to negotiations and requesting China to make Pyongyang return, the administration should indicate its openness to talks but note that they cannot be effective unless North Korea comes ready to deal. No reward should be offered for the North’s return to the table.

Third, the United States should spur its allies to respond with the only currency which the Kim regime likely understands: military strength. Washington has had troops on the peninsula for nearly 63 years, far longer than necessary. That has left the ROK and Japan dependent on America. They should take over responsibility for dealing with the North’s military threats.

Washington should unilaterally lift treaty restrictions on the range and payload of South Korea’s missiles, a bizarre leftover from Seoul’s time as a helpless American ward. The administration also should indicate its willingness to sell whatever weapons might help the ROK and Japan enhance their ability to deter and even preempt a North Korean attack. The changing security environment should cause Japan to formally revise the restrictions placed on military operations by its post-World War II constitution.

Further, the United States should press the newly elected governments in Seoul and Tokyo to confront their difficult past, address ongoing territorial controversies, and cooperate seriously on security. Americans no longer can afford to guarantee the security of populous and prosperous allies the world over. Moreover, the most effective deterrent to further North Korean provocations would be the knowledge that every new threat, test and attack would encourage greater South Korean-Japanese military efforts directed at Pyongyang.

Fourth, the administration should use the North’s latest threat as an opportunity to challenge the People’s Republic of China over its support for the DPRK. Beijing is visibly tiring of Pyongyang’s antics. A debate even has begun, though largely outside of government, over the value of supporting such an ungrateful and unpredictable “ally.”