President Obama used his visit to Seoul this week for the Nuclear Security Summit to warn North Korea not to go through with its provocative plan to launch a long-range ballistic missile in April. The launch would only "further isolate" Pyongyang, he declared, and would bring neither "the security" nor "the respect" the regime seeks.
All the right words, and yet once again the United States is playing tactical catch-up in response to a strategic move by the North. It appears that the administration was genuinely surprised by the North's announcement on March 16 that it would go ahead with the missile launch. The launch would clearly violate existing U.N. Security Council resolutions and the recent U.S.-DPRK agreement of February 29 in which the United States was to provide food aid (well, "nutritional assistance") in exchange for the North halting provocative missile and nuclear tests and allowing IAEA inspectors into some of its Yongbyon facilities. The administration furled its collective brow and avoided celebrating the February 29 agreement as a breakthrough, but appeared convinced that they had kicked the North Korea can down the road past the nuclear summit and the presidential elections here and in South Korea. The North, no doubt sniffing a certain tactical desperation, has raised the ante.
It is surprising that the administration seems so surprised. As I pointed out in previous postings and in op-eds in the Washington Post and elsewhere last December when Kim Jong Il died, the North has been propagandizing for years about its intentions to become a "full nuclear weapons state" in 2012...predictably around the April 15 hundredth anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth. Speculation that the North's most recent escalation represents a power struggle between hardliners and internationalists in Pyongyang is silly. The North has been consistent and transparent about its intent to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them -- through missiles and/or transfer to third countries (the latter threat was made repeatedly to U.S. negotiators in 2003 and the capability demonstrated with the El Kibar reactor in Syria). Everything else the North does is a secondary tactical move within that longer-term objective, which they see as indispensable to regime survival.
The temptation in the White House will be to continue threatening to throw Pyongyang in the rhetorical briar patch of "international isolation" so that United States and our allies can focus our limited hard power on the more immediate problem of preventing Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. However, Tehran will take note of the U.S. response to North Korea. We should assume that the Mullahs have seen the video tape of Bill Clinton declaring in 1994 that he would not allow North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.
The U.N. sanctions now in place from the North's previous missile and nuclear tests are not being fully enforced -- particularly by Beijing -- and there is pressure short of war that the administration can bring to bear on Pyongyang if necessary. If there are no consequences for the ballistic missile launch, the regime will come to expect minimal consequences for another nuclear test...or another transfer of nuclear related technology. And Tehran will definitely take note.
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