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On North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests

On North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests

By Stephen M. Walt

North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests are hardly good news, but they don’t justify going into full panic mode. We already knew that North Korea had a nuclear weapons capability, and though this latest test seems to have been slightly more powerful than the initial one, it doesn’t imply a qualitative shift in the strategic environment. North Korea’s defiance is annoying, perhaps, but it’s not like the act of testing a nuclear weapon tells us something new about their regime. And let’s not forget that the United States has tested a nuclear weapons 1030 times (plus another 24 joint tests with Great Britain), while Pyongyang has tested exactly twice.

The other reason not to get too bent out of shape is that there is little we can do about it. We’ve been worried about North Korea’s nuclear program for decades, and the Clinton adminstration seriously considered a preventive strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities back in 1993-1994. But they ultimately refrained, because our allies in the region were opposed to it and because the risks of an attack were deemed too great. The Bush administration was critical of Clinton’s emphasis on diplomacy and took a tougher line at first, but that approach didn’t stop North Korea from testing in 2006 and may even have encouraged them. In the end, the Bush team also recognized that it had no good coercive options and ended up going the diplomatic route too.

There are two reasons why our hands are largely tied. First, we don’t have extensive economic ties with North Korea, so we can’t pressure them by threatening to cut off aid, trade, or investment. Second, using military force to disarm or topple Kim Jong Il’s regime or to impose a full economic blockade could unleash an all-out war on the Korean peninsula. All-out war could do considerable damage to Seoul, which lies within artillery range of the border, and the sudden collapse of the North Korean state could create a massive humanitarian problem and make it more likely that some of its nuclear materials would escape reliable custody. These considerations explain why China and South Korea generally oppose stronger sanctions on North Korea, even when they are upset by Pyongyang’s actions.

So the best response is to remain calm, and stop talking as if this event is a test of Obama’s resolve or a fundamental challenge to U.S. policy.  In fact, the tests are just "business as usual" for North Korea, and it would better if the United States "under-reacts" rather than overreacts. Instead of giving Pyongyang the attention it wants, the United States should use this incident as an opportunity to build consensus among the main interested parties (China, Russia, South Korea, Japan) and let China take the lead in addressing it. Above all, the Obama administration should avoid making a lot of sweeping statements about how it will not "tolerate" a North Korean nuclear capability. The fact is that we’ve tolerated it for some time now, and since we don’t have good options for dealing with it, that’s precisely what we will continue to do.