Obama Needs to be Nuanced in North Korea Response


kim jong il twn.jpg
The pin-pricks, as Brent Scowcroft calls them, have started. North Korea is testing Obama’s resolve and strategic skills.
North Korea’s ballistic missile test masked as a satellite launch violates agreements that the United States, Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan negotiated with North Korea in order to bring it back into compliance with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
Set aside for the moment that despite the missile succeeding in covering more than 1,900 miles — doubling the distances achieved by earlier North Korea tests — the North Koreans failed to put anything into orbit, though state news agencies are reporting the satellite launch to be a success.
My friend Jeffrey Lewis who blogs at Arms Control Wonk wondered out loud on his facebook profile “What happens to North Korean rocket scientists after failed launches?” I wonder if these scientists are really in any jeopardy for failing when the State is calling their work a major success.
But Barack Obama in a well-crafted speech in Prague calling for a return to serious work on constraining the spread of weapons of mass destruction has ratcheted up the decibel level of his protest of the North Korea launch — saying that there must be consequences.
The problem is that China and Russia, which actually deployed warships and fighters to the region of the launch, believe that the world must not overreact to North Korea’s provocation. These two countries have thus far blocked the issuance of any statement from the United Nations Security Council, which met last evening (Sunday) for an emergency session.
North Korea seems to be demanding that it not fall too far down the Obama priority list — and it has engineered one of the first of many probable global crises designed to test the resolve and strategic course of the Obama administration. Joe Biden warned during the campaign that this would happen, and he was absolutely right.
North Korea is already the target of some of the world’s most stringent sanctions. And maintaining them — and even adding some categories of sanctions — does send a signal, but it is a soft one that the North Koreans may not care about or respect.
If this provocation was designed primarily “to get attention,” then the Obama administration should be asking what can be done to give North Korea “more” attention. Attention itself is not a strategic commodity — or something that a great nation should withhold if there is a chance of securing strategically significant successes over the ability of North Korea to further enhance its nuclear weapon systems capacity.
Giving North Korea more attention will be pilloried as appeasement by voices such as John Bolton and Frank Gaffney who think that there is little else but expedited regime change and military collision that will change North Korea’s course.
But what I have learned watching North Korea’s engagement with the US over the years is that North Korea does not move behaviorally in straight lines. But after all is said and done, when one looks back, one sees that North Korea is moving generally in a direction that the West may eventually be able to accept.
North Korea may be a rogue state — but it is not the kind of transnational, undeterrable threat that al Qaeda represents. North Korea’s leadership is a shrewdly self-interested, rational, calculating tyranny and as awful as dealing with such regimes may be — there are many options that can move the regime that are short of war.
Thus, in my view, Obama should not put himself into a box when it comes to a tough-edged response to North Korea. Give North Korea the attention it craves — and set up benchmarks for behavior.
And some of Obama’s responses may indeed have to be harder edged — but we need to be sure that the US isn’t giving the most thuggish part of North Korea’s leadership structure the excuses needed to undermine progressive movement inside the country.
At the same time, we simply need more alternatives and allies — and the best I can think of is to work with Japan, South Korea, and China in not calling for withdrawing engagement and toughening sanctions but rather crafting how to strategically enhance engagement with particular forces inside North Korea that we want to cultivate.
It’s time for a Nixonian approach that would enrich some of North Korea’s potential robber barons against the interests of others inside the regime. We need to try to unleash opportunities for some and not others. This is risky and could itself be destabilizing — but we need a strategic course that ultimately improves the leverage of other of North Korea’s neighbors over its conduct.
Bluster will not work and is not respected. Force actually is respected by the North Koreans but can easily escalate beyond control.
North Korea is not monolithic. It would be prudent to try to generate some leverage on the competing factions around Kim Jong Il.
But hitting North Korea hard now may undermine any chance of teasing out these factions and of generating other more promising scenarios. At the minimum, if this was all about “attention” — then that is something America can give at low cost.
If North Korea doesn’t get off this new provocative course, then we have to consider some options that change the game.
— Steve Clemons


11 comments on “Obama Needs to be Nuanced in North Korea Response

  1. samuelburke says:

    April 06, 2009
    US Out of Korea
    Posted by Lew Rockwell at April 6, 2009 07:17 PM
    The only way the universal health care and other oppressions of the North Korean people can be ended is for the US to stop occupying South Korea. South Koreans want to be independent, and with the foreign legions marching out, the communist government of the North would be fatally undermined. Korea could be one country again, if that is the people’s will. But in the meantime, please, let’s stop pretending that the North, with the GDP of some small town in the US and a few bottle-rockets, can be a danger to anyone but its own people. US threats against it only prop up its government, as the CIA, etc. intend.
    NB: The Japanese, with the most modern technology, could not shoot down the pathetic North Korean missile, despite the threats to do so. Such an idea has always been a fraud to justify spending. In the US, missiles have been able to intercept other missiles only when the targets carried, hilariously, homing devices.


  2. kimchee goode says:

    north korea is seen as a government that ought to be changed, so why would they not want to create the illusion that they have a defense. having nuclear weapons trumps most of the changemeisters plans to bring about change of goverment in north korea.
    and a delivering mechanism is just what the dr ordered in the minds of the north korean govt.
    dr no in north korea wants to survive,
    defense and threats are his only game in a world where the u.s tries to impose its will over others.
    while i have always felt that the north korean population is probably one of the most oppressed ever in human history and although they have been held captive lo all these years…the government in place rules the land and they hold the power to evolve into a more population friendly country.
    there are poor helpless populations all over this planet which if you wish to help humanity would be much easier to give aid to than north korea.
    if north korea did not feel threatened they would not need to show force.
    regime change is the bellicose policy of the united states towards govts they do not approve off, and with the arsenal at its disposal, the united states has tried myriad ways of trying to dislodge the north korean govt from its ruling position in that land.
    so who can be surprised that the north korean govt seeks to defend itself through threat and intimidation.
    only regime changelings would act surprised.


  3. Collin says:

    North Korea did this to get attention and to get possibly cash inflows from potential missile buyers. I’m not sure how Iran and other customers are interpreting this. The fact Iran choose to launch on a day Obama was speaking about nuclear proliferation was a “cry for attention”.


  4. jonst says:

    Mr Murder wrote:
    “We want this as an eventual buffer state to China, and to justify our own presence in nearby lands to greater levels. So much for pulling troops out of Korea?
    We need a mainland Asian base or three to cover Russia’s flyover space, and portions of China.”
    Museum fodder displaying 1950s mentality. And displaying, as well, how tenacious it is in our culture since I suspect most in the Village would agree with this kind of thing.


  5. Pacos_gal says:

    Do you think that this was just a way for North Korea to get more leverage in future talks?
    Right now they have the nuclear card and if this had come off 100% they would have the missile card too. It didn’t, even though North Korea is keeping up the rhetoric that it was successful, but maybe they will be able to say that further development would be negotiable.
    Another question would be, if this was a play for attention (childish though it might be) what the response be if we don’t react at all to it? Would they then up the ante and go for another missile launch or put perhaps do something on the nuclear front?


  6. Mr.Murder says:

    Russia and China don’t know the result either?
    There’s no way this technology is field deployable, espicially from a naval perspective? They didn’t launch one far enough to increase the range of client states like Pakistan?
    Those are the two most important items.
    Arms races, it’s what’s for dinner.
    We want this as an eventual buffer state to China, and to justify our own presence in nearby lands to greater levels. So much for pulling troops out of Korea?
    We need a mainland Asian base or three to cover Russia’s flyover space, and portions of China.


  7. jonst says:

    Ok, how about some ‘out of the box thinking here’. Do nothing. We have other fish to fry, huge fish, here at home and in the world. Leave it to the other nations to deal with North Korea. We can’t want a solution to this issue more than Japan, China, Russia, or South Korea want it. Let them have their damn missiles/bombs for all the good it will do them. Unless, that is, other nations want to lead the way and really punish NK. Short of that…forget about them and keep our powder dry.
    And forget about ‘nuance’ with NK. We are clueless about them and don’t fool yourself into thinking any differently. Nuance assumes some level of knowledge. We have none.


  8. Dan Kervick says:

    Steve wrote:
    “North Korea is not monolithic. It would be prudent to try to generate some leverage on the competing factions around Kim Jong Il.”
    Steve, do you have any references on this? What are those competing factions? What is the latest thinking on what will happen in North Korea if something were to happen to Kim?


  9. JohnH says:

    I am truly amazed by what is left out of this post. To assert that North Korea simply “wants attention” is akin to charging it with childish behavior, deserving to be dismissed and ignored. What happened to nuanced, informative analysis? Could it be that there are real issues at stake here, perhaps on the peninsula itself?
    According to South Korean parliamentary opposition, “the primary cause for inter-Korean relations racing toward crisis lies in the South Korean government’s effective ignorance of agreements made between South and North Korean leaders and the continuation of a policy of antagonism toward the North. (March 16, 2009)” Couldn’t these facts have played a role in the North’s decision to violate other agreements? And why was this information totally ignored?
    Before Obama delivers any messages to the North, he should talk to the South’s hardline government, and communicate in no uncertain terms that it would be in everyone’s interest to reduce tensions and honor agreements.


  10. Max says:

    I agree with Steve. Japan is in the most danger of the western-
    thinking countries and I think they should take the lead in how the
    world is going to deal with N. Korea. Though the missile didn’t
    successfully get into orbit it was still progress from the last one
    they tried. More on the success and failure of the launch here, http://www.newsy.com/videos/north_korea_s_failure_and_success


  11. Dan Kervick says:

    What do the Japanese want to do? The missile went over their territory, so I think they are entitled to a leading role in articulating the global response.


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