War Stories

First, Take a Deep Breath

Obama shouldn’t respond too quickly, or too aggressively, to the North Korean nuclear test.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-il

So North Korea has tested a nuclear bomb. What should President Barack Obama do about it? Ideally, nothing. A shrug may be the response that Kim Jong-il fears most.

This, after all, was only the second A-bomb that Pyongyang has ever tested. (The first was in October 2006.) And a recent long-range missile test, last April, seems to have been a dud—as were both of the other such tests it’s attempted in the past decade. If the big fear is that this loathsome dictatorship might fit a nuclear warhead onto a missile with the range to hit Japan or beyond, the worry seems premature by many years.

But, politically and strategically, Obama has to do something. First, our leading Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, live within Pyongyang’s gun sites, and they view an atomic North Korea with considerable alarm. Second, nuclear wannabes, such as Iran, are watching how we deal with this provocation. To ignore, excuse, or reward it might send an unfortunate signal. Third, Obama’s domestic critics—and possibly the president himself—view the explosion as a test of his executive leadership. This doesn’t mean he has to respond with bluster, but probably he has to respond.

Finally, the North Koreans might also regard their deed as, at least in part, a test of this new American president. If Obama wants to push or lure them off the nuclear track at some point, he has to devise a shrewd countermove now.

The bad news is that shrewd countermoves are in short supply when it comes to dealing with the Hermit Kingdom.

Military options—as the Joint Chiefs of Staff have made clear to each of the three presidents before Obama—are extremely unappetizing. We don’t know where all of North Korea’s nuclear facilities are. They have thousands of artillery rockets, some armed with chemical munitions, within a few minutes’ flight time from South Korea’s capital, Seoul. An American air strike wouldn’t destroy all of these sites or rockets, and if Pyongyang retaliated, hundreds of thousands of South Korean citizens could die.

Sanctions and other forms of political or economic pressure can go only so far. North Korea is, by design, the most sealed-off nation on the planet. Limiting exposure to the rest of the world limits vulnerability to its pressures as well. Cutting off food supplies would hurt the North Korean people, but, as a series of natural famines has shown, Kim Jong-il doesn’t care about the well-being of his people.

Cutting off trade routes probably would have an impact on the regime and thus on the rulers’ behavior. But most trade goes through its neighbor and key ally China. And in past confrontations, China’s leaders have refused to apply economic pressure. They fear that destabilizing Kim’s regime might spur millions of North Koreans to flee across the Chinese border, creating a refugee crisis beyond Beijing’s control. Moreover, the survival of Kim’s regime serves their own strategic interests: As long as U.S. military forces in East Asia are focused on protecting South Korea and Japan from Pyongyang, they’ll be less focused on protecting Taiwan from Beijing.

At the same time, however, the Chinese have no desire to see North Korea develop an effective nuclear arsenal. Like the Soviet Union during Cold War days, China doesn’t want subordinate powers to acquire independent means to make mischief. China also fears that a nuclear-armed North Korea might compel Japan to go nuclear, which would pose a threat to China in the long run. When North Korea set off its first nuclear test, the Chinese were clearly frustrated but didn’t extend their harsh words to action. It’s conceivable that this second test, especially in the wake of the missile test—both of which violated Security Council resolutions that China endorsed—could alter Chinese calculations. In the past, the Chinese have put their narrow national interests above the interests of regional security and nuclear nonproliferation. Maybe this latest move will tip the scale in the opposite direction.

So where does this leave the Obama administration? The administration is certainly exploring ways of getting China to clamp down on North Korea and persuading Beijing that a nuclear North Korea is the region’s pre-eminent threat. The United States may also be trying to enlist Chinese support for another freeze on the assets of Korean leaders. In 2007, with Chinese support, the U.S. Treasury Department froze the funds in an account that North Korean officials had been secretly keeping in a bank in Chinese-controlled Macau. Many believe that this move—which hit Kim Jong-il and his cronies in their pocketbooks—had a decisive impact in prodding North Korea to the negotiating table. The bank freeze was lifted as one element of the agreement that Bush’s negotiators reached later in 2007. So Obama could now restore the freeze.

Another feasible and possibly effective move: step up enforcement of the Proliferation Security Initiative. The PSI—which was passed in 2003 as President Bush’s sole (and very laudable) measure to clamp down on nuclear proliferation—allows the 95 nations that have signed the accord to halt, board, and inspect any ship in international waters suspected of carrying nuclear material or other contraband. A major worry about North Korea’s nuclear tests is that Pyongyang might sell nuclear materials to rogue states, terrorists, or any entity that offers to pay in hard currency. Obama and U.S. allies should start boarding as many ships moving in and out of North Korean harbors as they can. The fact that South Korea has just signed the PSI is an encouraging step. Until now, South Korea’s leaders declined to sign on for fear of angering Kim Jong-il. After the recent nuclear and missile tests, they realize that Kim is impervious to outside overtures and that their security must take precedence.

What game is Kim Jong-il playing? Even the closest Pyongyang-watchers are a bit mystified. When Bush was president, there was a clear logic to North Korea’s actions. In his first six years in the White House, Bush had no interest in negotiating with Pyongyang. In the last two years, after the nuclear test, he was suddenly so keen to strike a deal that his negotiators left the accord full of loopholes, which the North Koreans proceeded to plow through. (For a summary of what happened, click here and here.) Obama has been keen on diplomatic engagement. Had Kim sent out peace signals, they certainly would have been reciprocated. Instead, Kim gave the world the finger.

It is widely speculated that Kim is playing to audiences at home at least as much to those abroad. North Korea seems to be in the midst of a leadership transition—perhaps a successor crisis. Kim Jong-il is clearly sick (how sick, no one can say). He appears to be maneuvering his son and other relatives into top positions of power. He needs the military’s support, and to get it, he’s appeasing their demands for a more hawkish position and more military tests. A variation on this theory holds that Kim needs to show the North Korean people that he’s very much in charge and bolstering the homeland’s nuclear deterrent.

One thing is sure, though: It’s fairly pointless for Obama, or anyone else, to pursue diplomatic options now. Kim is clearly in no mood for talks. He has said as much, and, actually, he’s been consistently honest about this subject. When he has said that he wants talks and is willing to trade X for Y, it’s been true. Also, nobody seems to know who is in charge in North Korea or who will be in a week or a month. Even if some back-channel talks could be arranged, it wouldn’t be clear that those talking had any authority.

So for the moment, Obama should keep the Asian allies secure and calm, try to lure China onboard, squeeze the North Koreans as hard as U.N. resolutions allow, and forget about the six-party talks, which have outlived their purpose. (If diplomacy gets serious again, it will be in the form of U.S.-North Korean bilaterals.) Above all, Obama should put the whole subject of North Korea on the back burner, at least in terms of public statements. Don’t react to Pyongyang’s screams and threats, which will be as hollow as they are torrential. Don’t play North Korea’s game.

At the same time, Obama should watch for the slightest hint of an overture—and be ready to respond immediately, though maybe in a way that refrains from official commitment. At some point, sending an “unofficial” envoy might be useful—someone like Bill Clinton or Madeleine Albright, who has credibility with the North Koreans, just as Jimmy Carter was the envoy who smoothed the way to opening talks during Clinton’s presidency.

I have long thought—and still do think—that North Korea, above all, wants a deal for aid and security, and that its nukes and its missiles are the only bargaining chips it has. It bargains hard, sometimes maddeningly so, but negotiating a deal is possible. It has in fact been done under both Presidents Clinton and Bush 41.

Under the current circumstances, though North Korea—whoever winds up in charge—has to make the first move. Believing otherwise is delusion.