Obama’s choices in North Korea

Obama’s choices in North Korea

North Korea’s apparently imminent test-launch of another ballistic missile brings an unwelcome complication to the Obama administration’s overflowing inboxes. It highlights yet again the perpetual dilemma posed by the Kim regime: Whether you ignore it or engage it, North Korea invariably misbehaves. For all of the debates over U.S. policy, ultimately the main driver of North Korean behavior is not how the U.S. acts but rather the perverse nature of the Pyongyang regime itself.

Even though the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs are in separate regions of the world, they share some linkages and reciprocal influences. In Pyongyang’s case, the newest incarnation of the Kim dynasty does not like losing global attention to Tehran, and appears to be returning to its customary patterns of bluster and brinksmanship in part to recapture global headlines and increase its leverage in potential future negotiations with the U.S. Domestic politics no doubt play a role as well, as Kim Jong Un seeks to consolidate his hold on power and place himself in continuity with the legacies of his father and grandfather. From Tehran’s perspective, one "lesson" from North Korea appears to be that possession of nuclear weapons helps ensure regime survival and increase bargaining leverage, despite international opprobrium.

Both nations’ nuclear programs also complicate the Obama administration’s planned "pivot" to Asia. I remain worried that the White House’s Asia pivot contains a mistaken assumption that treats the Middle East and Asia as distinctly separate regions, subject to zero-sum allocations of American strategic resources. Yet as the administration weighs its limited menu of options for North Korea’s latest provocation, there is an opportunity to consider potential strategic linkages between how the U.S. responds to North Korea and how it handles the Iran file. At least two possible paths come to mind. Both admittedly have significant downsides, but then what policy doesn’t when it comes to North Korea and Iran? As tactically different as each approach is, both represent an effort to consider a strategic linkage between U.S. policy toward North Korea and Iran.

Deterrent Linkage. This would mean the U.S. taking an aggressive response to North Korea’s missile test, by throwing a brush-back pitch against Pyongyang and also sending a deterrent message to Tehran about American resolve and willingness to use force. Specifically, this could entail an attack on the North Korean Unha-3 missile while on the launch pad, or intercepting it after the launch in its boost phase. Bill Perry and Ashton Carter called for such a strike before North Korea’s 2006 test, and Philip Zelikow laid out the case for a similar measure in 2009. Numerous U.N. Security Council Resolutions (such as 1695, 1718, and 1874) have declared the illegality of North Korea’s ballistic missile program, and such a strike could be justified on self-defense grounds by the U.S. and treaty allies such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.

A strike is of course a dramatic step that carries significant risks. The most significant is the potential for North Korean retaliation and escalation, but other risks include an embarrassing "miss" if the attack fails, heightened tensions with China, potential discord with South Korea if the Lee government disapproves, not to mention a further emboldening of Iran. On the other hand, if successful such an attack could serve as a strategic game-changer with implications in both Northeast Asia and the Middle East. Benefits could include restraining further North Korean provocations and bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table in better faith, diminishing China’s virtually unqualified support for North Korea, and increasing Tehran’s openness to a negotiated settlement by demonstrating that the U.S. mantra of "all options are on the table" is a credible threat.

Bargaining Linkage. If the Obama administration takes a less confrontational approach to North Korea’s missile test (by, say, a ritual sternly-worded condemnation and perhaps yet another UNSC resolution), it could still be done in a way that creates linkage with the Iran issue. Given the limited options and risks of an aggressive North Korean response, this might be the more prudent path. If so, the White House should at least use its restraint with Pyongyang to increase its bargaining leverage with Beijing — and thus potentially gain a strategic benefit in pressing Iran. This could mean quietly communicating to Beijing that the U.S. has considered but rejected the option of striking the North Korean missile, in part out of deference to China’s preferences for a soft approach to its unruly ally. In return, the U.S. secures from China a commitment to publicly support increased sanctions pressure on Iran, in word and practice.

This approach also carries risks. China may be unwilling to credit American restraint on North Korea as a concession, and may likewise be unwilling to depart from its opposition to tightened sanctions on Iran. Pyongyang and Tehran might both perceive the lack of a strong response to the missile test as further evidence that nuclear adventurism ultimately has little cost (especially if Pyongyang follows up the missile launch with another nuclear test). But this path is also an opportunity for the U.S. to at least try to increase its bargaining leverage with Iran, by persuading China to see our restraint on North Korea as a trade-off rather than a giveaway.