What Should Obama Do When Kim Jong Il is Not “Kim Jong Well”?


kim-jong-il.jpgMost national security analysts see the provocative second nuclear test by North Korea as a direct “poke” at Barack Obama — testing his resolve in a high stakes international stand-off and demanding senior level US attention.
These analysts are partly correct, but the other part of the equation is that North Korea’s nuclear gaming and short range missile launches today are embarrassing for the leadership in Beijing. According to one Chinese international security expert once affiliated with Peking University’s International Studies Institute, China’s tools for influencing North Korea are pretty minimal — and the illusion of that influence just collapsed in front of the entire world.
According to another high level former Chinese government official, after North Korea’s March 2009 missile launch, China President Hu Jintao conveyed in “the strongest personal terms” his frustration and anger about North Korea’s recent saber-rattling behavior. Both China and Russia have been counseling America to be patient with North Korea for the time being and to continue to work towards a return to the Six Party Talks, which the Chinese felt the North Koreans would eventually accept again.
But a nuclear test and missile launches are obvious escalations of North Korean trouble-making, and the question today is whether there is a “patience 2.0” option available — or whether Barack Obama and the US have to find a way to harshly ‘punish’ North Korea or face a credibility collapse at home.
One can already imagine a spate of articles coming from the pens of John Bolton, Charles Krauthammer, former Vice President Cheney, and others that Barack Obama should he fail to ratchet up the Pacific-based war machine is really just an “appeaser in chief.”
The fact is that the Chinese and Russians are mostly right about the need for more patience and are calling on the White House privately not to get in a tit-for-tat escalation with North Koreans — particularly when there may be a serious leadership crisis underway to succeed the ailing Kim Jong Il.
China, Russia, and South Korea (even the conservative-led government in South Korea) have a primary interest in “stability” in addition to blocking potential North Korean proliferation of WMD technology and materials.
Japan, because of the emotionally sensitive “abductee issue“, has morphed its animus against North Korea about a unique national grievance with a more legitimate national security concern about the missiles and nukes North Korea is brandishing. Regrettably, Japan has been too immature in the Six Party Talks and has allowed an understandable (on one level) but lower-order emotional obsession to derail strategic rationality.
Americans are schizophrenic on North Korea. During the end of Clinton II, there was an enormous amount of attention focused on North Korea — capped off by a visit by then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and had Monica Lewinsky not appeared on Bill Clinton’s docket, many believe that Bill Clinton would have gone to North Korea before the end of his term.
Colin Powell tried to engineer continuity between Clinton and the first George W. Bush term but was quickly mugged by President Bush who wanted to derail the course US-North Korea relations were on. North Korea envoy Jack Pritchard and then Under Secretary of State John Bolton engaged in a highly public feud over North Korea policy — though both worked, theoretically, for the same Secretary of State.
The anti-progress hawks won the day until the second George W. Bush term when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill brought the worsening North Korean situation around to something with new, constructive possibilities and made the Six Party Talks something serious.
Now Barack Obama’s plate is full with Iran, the AfPak mess, Israel/Palestine, Russia, the domestic and international economic crises, Cuba, Somali pirates and more — and while not wanting to overreact to North Korea, Obama has also probably been underreacting to them as well.
The North Koreans want to know they matter to the new President of the United States — and they are wreaking havoc in the international system until they get that attention.
But actually, attention is a pretty cheap commodity and doesn’t necessarily mean that North Korea’s extortionist demands for resources should be met. Giving North Korea the kind of attention that Christopher Hill managed to do on behalf of Rice and Bush is one of the things that the Obama White House should be doing.
North Korea may simply be unstable while uncertainties about political succession stew in the muck of Pyongyang’s opaque political scene, but at the same time — America does not have a “Chris Hill” in Christopher Hill’s old position.
Waiting patiently and quietly in line is the highly capable Kurt Campbell who should be on this problem now — but he has not been confirmed, and the Obama team needs to fix this — and needed to yesterday.
North Korea’s provocations are reckless but while going higher up the ladder of naughtiness, they do not meet the standard for invasion or attack — and a tougher “sanctions regime” may give the bad guys in North Korea’s unstable political order exactly what they want.
America cannot do nothing. Obama can’t be a sitting duck for the attack that will predictably come from John Bolton and fellow travelers. But there are simply few real options.
Making patience look like the smart strategy, even the tough strategy, would be wise. A meeting between the foreign ministers of Russia, China and the US (I’d leave South Korea and Japan home for this one — hate mail already piling up. . .) for non-public discussions on North Korea scenarios would also be optically tough-looking.
And then there is always the possibility of an out-of-the-box play by Barack Obama that he always seem to deploy so skilfully in unbalancing the Republican Party. I’m not sure exactly how he’d do it — but to co-opt North Korea in some way, some gesture that is not the expected hostile or angry move — something similar in a North Korea context to getting Republican Governor and possible presidential candidate Jon Huntsman to be Obama’s Ambassador to China — might be the kind of move that gives Kim Jong Il the attention and respect he craves and at the same time stabilize things. . .at least for a while.
Alternatively, perhaps Hillary Clinton or Bob Gates or someone closer to Obama like Mark Lippert or Denis McDonough could accidentally bump into key North Korean officials around the world and engage in some stress-relieving “chats”, or something more creative than I can imagine at the moment.
What needs to be avoided is a hot escalation of words and deeds during a probable leadership crisis. America needs to do all it can to avoid an attack on the Korean peninsula that will not only be devastating for all parties in the region but do incalculable damage to the highly important US-China relationship.
Obama needs to make patience look like the right, and the tough, course — and he needs to find a way to co-opt the North Koreans into a new dance.
President Obama needs to give this some personal time — and he needs Kurt Campbell as the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia on the job NOW.
— Steve Clemons


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