How North Korea plays us in an election year

How North Korea plays us in an election year

The North Koreans don’t care much for democracy, but they sure enjoy negotiating with democracies in an election year — especially when they detect that mission number one in Washington is to avoid troubling foreign policy headlines until after November 6. The Obama administration actually started out with a pretty tough stance on North Korea, captured in an impressive statement of policy issued by Hillary Clinton while in Thailand in July 2009. By about mid-2011, however, the administration began getting nervous that its lack of "engagement" might tempt Pyongyang to conduct nuclear or missile tests. Once again, engagement slipped from being a marginally useful means to the end of the policy in itself. After a flurry of negotiations the North agreed in the February 29 "Leap Year" deal that it would stop nuclear and missile tests for a while and let IAEA inspectors back at the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for food aid (now euphemistically called "nutritional assistance"). Nobody in the administration was convinced this was a breakthrough, but it seemed to kick the North Korea problem down the road for a while. Problem solved.

Well, not quite. Within days of the agreement evidence mounted that the North might go ahead with a missile test anyway. The White House rushed off a high level delegation to Pyongyang in early March to warn that a test would scuttle the food aid deal. That "secret" mission soon became widely known because of clearance requests made for the plane across the U.S., Korean and Japanese governments. It did not matter anyway, since the North Koreans ignored the White House entreaties and went ahead with their ballistic missile test a few days later.

It was obvious to a number of us (see my previous posts) that North Korea intended to test missile and nuclear weapons in 2012 under almost any circumstances. I said as much to colleagues in the administration and warned that we were pinning too much on this agreement, which I did not oppose, but did not think would hold for very long. Hopeful North Korea watchers in and out of government acknowledged any agreement with the North is tenuous at best, but seemed genuinely perplexed that Pyongyang would violate this one so quickly. It makes sense, though. A series of negotiations had yielded the outlines of an agreement with the North in December that probably would have been announced that month if Kim Jong Il had not died suddenly. By March, IAEA inspectors would have been on the ground in Yongbyon investigating the North’s showcase uranium enrichment facility. After a test would the international community have supported U.S. sanctions that would have forced the inspectors out? Kim Jong Un is new at the job and went with the original plan anyway — cut the deal and then test. It just turned out that the gap between deal and no deal was shortened.

We should know by now that the main point for North Korea is developing the missile and nuclear capability; not the diplomatic agreements. Within months of its last two missile tests, Pyongyang tested nuclear devices. Sure enough, last week the North changed the preamble of its constitution to declare itself a full nuclear weapons state (as promised for years but dismissed a feint by hopeful observers). A third nuclear test within 2012 seems likely. If it is a higher plutonium yield (the last one was about 4-5 kilotons), that is bad. If it is a successful test of a uranium-based device, that is worse.

The administration is now entirely in reactive mode. They went for a lesser Presidential Statement (PRST) from the UNSC in response to the missile launch so that they would have their one North Korea UNSC Resolution bullet ready for a nuclear test when that comes. That gives the president a talking point after the next test, but it is not clear what else. Beijing, which had supported some slightly tougher language in the PRST, is now to calling on all parties to be restrained and return to the February 29 agreement.

A proactive strategy to deal with the North Korean nuclear problem would have looked entirely different. Instead of (or perhaps in addition to) attempting to "engage" the North Koreans out of conducting a test, the administration could have done any number of things, including: supporting South Korean and Japanese requests to go to the UNSC to pressure Pyongyang before the launch; pressing China to actually implement sanctions under UNSC 1874 by spotlighting Chinese firms in violation (like the one that sold the North the mobile missile TEL that was paraded in the streets of Pyongyang recently); working with friends and allies to inspect any ships that have docked in North Korea in the previous 120 days (hundreds of such ships are estimated to pull into South Korean ports alone each year); cracking down on North Korean uses of "flags of convenience;" maintaining spending on missile defenses; keeping a more open mind on South Korean requests to extend their own surface-to-surface missile ranges so they can counterstrike deeper into North Korea…and the list goes on. None of these are radical proposals in light of North Korea’s obvious intent to keep developing nuclear weapons and the means of delivery. Yet I doubt the administration will do even half of these in response to another North Korean nuclear test. I do not fault the administration for talking to the North, but talk is cheap if it isn’t backed by muscle.