Shadow Government

North Korean nukes? Round up the usual suspects!

The international community's cynical and feckless response to North Korean nuclear testing evokes nothing more than Claude Rein's character in "Casablanca," who puts on an act for his Nazi overlords after the murder of their commander by ordering the Vichy police officers to "round up the usual suspects." With Pyongyang's most recent and dangerous test on Feb. 12, can we afford to just pretend we are serious yet again?

On the one hand, there is an obvious recognition that this time the response must be tougher. It will take time to conduct the forensics, but seismic readings suggest that the test may approach the 12 kiloton yield of the blast that destroyed Hiroshima (the last two tests were only a fraction of that size). More troubling, the North Koreans can claim -- with some honesty -- that they have been perfecting weaponization and miniaturization. And more troubling still, this test may have been conducted using uranium-based weapons. If so, then North Korea is poised to crank out multiple warheads underground (since uranium enrichment does not require the same cooling methods) where they cannot be detected. Those who say North Korea cannot actually use nuclear weapons without committing suicide forget that a large arsenal gives Pyongyang greater latitude for coercion over Japan and South Korea by just threatening to use or transfer those weapons. This is a dangerous threshold. So maybe the Security Council's immediate statement that it will take action against North Korea and the Chinese Foreign Ministry's "resolute" condemnation of the test mean there will be real sanctions this time.

On the other hand, the Chinese MFA statement is essentially the same one they issued last time North Korea conducted a nuclear test and Chinese officials have been explaining to journalists that they will only "fine tune" sanctions to show displeasure without upsetting the "balance" in their relationship with Pyongyang and Washington. Susan Rice is also reported to have said that the Security Council will "go through the usual drill," hopefully a misquotation because it is so obviously evocative of Claude Reins in "Casablanca."

Fortunately, Congress is preparing legislation to put pressure on the administration to do more this time. The North Korea Nonproliferation and Accountability Act of 2013 would not force the administration to do anything other than report back to Congress, but it will help those in the administration who argue that an entirely new level of sanctions are now needed. That package should include Chapter 7 (binding) Security Council sanctions, but also unilateral and coalition steps by the United States and partners to inspect all North Korean shipping and air traffic that enters their territory and to freeze all international banking transactions with North Korean entities through Section 311 of the Patriot Act. Those arguing against such measures have points they would rather not say in public: that enforcement of deeper sanctions creates tension with China we cannot afford now; that we would only have to lift new sanctions in order to get back to the table with Pyongyang (the way we returned North Korean funds frozen under the Patriot Act in 2005 in order to get the North Koreans back to the table in 2007); and, finally, that we have too many problems in foreign policy now with Syria and Iran to put pesky misbehaving North Korea on the front burner. All three points are shamefully wrong, which is why they will not hold up under the light of Congressional scrutiny: First, we will simply not get action from China without raising Beijing's level of discomfort by proving our readiness to take steps with our allies; second, we should never trade defensive measures against North Korean threats for the right to talk to North Korean diplomats (dialogue is fine, as long as it is not paid for); and, finally, the North Korean nuclear problem will be much harder later than it is now.  Let's hope that Congress keeps the spotlight on this problem, because real pressure on North Korea has to start somewhere.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Obama's 'strategic patience' on North Korea is turning into strategic neglect

When asked, "would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?" then-candidate for President Barack Obama replied, "I would."

That answer is little noted, nor long remembered. Yet the challenges posed by North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs have only grown. Since President Obama took office, North Korea has conducted two more nuclear tests, the latest on the eve of the State of the Union speech, after having admitted a long-suspected clandestine uranium enrichment program in 2010. Meanwhile, Iran has more than quintupled its stocks of enriched uranium, more than doubled its enrichment capacity, and enriched to levels much closer to weapons grade. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently rejected direct talks with the United States, again slapping the hand the President offered in his first inaugural speech.

Moreover, David Sanger reported in the New York Times that the two threats may be  converging: "The Iranians are also pursuing uranium enrichment, and one senior American official said two weeks ago that 'it's very possible that the North Koreans are testing for two countries.'" Should this extraordinary statement prove to be more than speculation, it would be a serious escalation of the proliferation threat.

What then did the president say about these matters in last night's State of the Union Speech?  Not much:

"The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."

"Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon."

What the president did not say is that efforts to isolate North Korea are failing. The North's trade with China has more than tripled in recent years, and Chinese investment is mushrooming. So long as Beijing remains intent on shielding its ally from the consequences of nuclear brinksmanship, efforts to isolate Pyongyang will fail.

Similarly, while Iran has suffered tough and growing economic sanctions, they have not slowed Tehran's nuclear program, which is expanding and accelerating.

In the face of these threats, especially Pyongyang's latest provocation, the president apparently chose not to outline details of his reported plans for deeper cuts to the American nuclear arsenal. The apparent paradox would have been too great.

Indeed, the State of the Union Speech focused on domestic policy, with national security issues raised in the last quarter of the speech. While high unemployment and sluggish economic growth understandably remain the principle concerns of most Americans, the Administration can no longer apply "strategic patience" to the threats from Iran and North Korea. Patience is becoming neglect and neglecting them will only make them worse.