Launch This

Launch This

Kim Jong Un may have a few more tricks up his sleeve. In fact, North Korea’s successful launch Wednesday of a long-range rocket may be just the first in a series of moves by Pyongyang, demonstrating that it is not only striving to become a nuclear power but also a grave danger to regional security. Whatever drives North Korea — national security concerns, domestic politics, Kim family prestige — Washington should treat its success as a wake-up call, realize its policies have failed and explore options for a rebalanced approach that includes more active diplomacy.

While the long-range rocket test appears to have brought Pyongyang closer to fielding a viable weapon, the threat to the United States is not going to appear overnight. The Unha cannot reach the continental United States armed with a heavy warhead, nor has the North perfected the technologies needed for such a weapon, such as a re-entry vehicle or heat shield. The situation, however, will likely grow more dangerous from here. In five years, North Korea might have 50 nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them regionally; in a decade it might have the capability to strike the United States. Moreover, as its stockpile of bombs and missiles grows, the North will be looking for export markets, confident that it will be difficult to punish a country armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.

Besides the danger posed by weapons of mass destruction, the North could continue its provocative behavior, like it did in March 2010 by sinking the South Korean ship Cheonan and by bombarding a South Korean island in Nov 2010. If the South strikes back, it could lead to destructive war — one that could draw in the United States and China on opposite sides. North Korea is thought to have 13,000 pieces of artillery near the Demilitarized Zone that separates it from its southern neighbor, many within range of Seoul — a city of 10 million people.

While these dangers may seem to merit obvious attention, the Obama administration has ignored them. Like the conservative South Korean government currently in power, the Obama team erroneously believes that a politically unstable, economically weak North Korea will eventually buckle under pressure — resulting in better deals at the negotiating table–if Pyongyang returns to talks.

On occasion, the administration has tried to reach out to Pyongyang, but those efforts have failed, in part because of Washington’s own shortcomings. The Korean press has reported that current and retired U.S. officials have traveled Pyongyang to assure the North that the United States harbors peaceful intentions. Those efforts have failed, in part because of their juxtaposition with a U.S. decision in October to allow South Korea to extend the range of its own ballistic missiles to cover the whole of the North. Likewise, while the administration viewed President Obama’s November speech in Burma, where he offered an "extended hand" from the United States if North Korea would simply "let go" of its nuclear weapons, as a significant gesture, from Pyongyang’s perspective it was nothing new. The North Koreans have heard similar lines a thousand times before. The overall impression left by U.S. policy is not "strategic patience" — a fancy Washington euphemism for doing nothing — but strategic drift.

The successful rocket launch should compel the Obama administration to discard the myths that form the shaky foundation of current policy:

1. North Korea is not a failed state that can never achieve its nuclear or economic ambitions. It is moving slowly down each road.

2. Contrary to the belief that North Korea does not abide by agreements, Pyongyang gutted a multi-billion dollar program during the 1990s that could have produced as many as 100 nuclear weapons because of an agreement with Washington.

3. The North is not a hermit kingdom. It is developing close economic relations with China, sending hundreds of North Koreans overseas for educational and business training; and it recently hired the German Kempinski hotel group to run the largest hotel in Pyongyang.

4. North Korean leaders are no more irrational than other world leaders: They’re working to build closer relations with China and buttress their own defenses in response to perceived threats.

5. Beijing is not going to solve the North Korea problem for Washington; it is more interested in stability on its borders than U.S. nuclear concerns.

With these in mind, the White House should launch a policy review led by a prominent American official or former official, like the one conducted by former Secretary of Defense William Perry after the North Korean rocket test in 1998. The review would provide a realistic assessment of developments since Kim Jung Un took power a year ago. It would focus on the still ongoing political transition that has led to questions about regime stability, the future of Pyongyang’s domestic policy given hints that Kim may dismantle his father’s legacy, and the foreign policy direction of a stronger, more confident North Korea. Any review must also consider options for firming up existing defense programs and exploring new ones — such as theater ballistic missile defenseto safeguard the security of the United States and its allies against a North Korea bristling with nuclear-tipped missiles.

The United States doesn’t need to scrap its entire North Korea policy. It should still seek a United Nations resolution, if only to protect its credibility and that of the U.N., since both warned North Korea against testing its rocket. But the administration should also be thinking ahead about how to communicate with Pyongyang after the U.N. debate, particularly if China prevents it from enacting tougher measures against the North.

It is hard to understand why the United States and its European allies hold fairly regular senior-level negotiations with Iran despite Teheran’s bad behavior but refuse to hold similar sessions with Pyongyang. No one thinks that the North Koreans would behave if only U.S. officials spoke with them but such meetings could be useful, first exploring the possibility of finding common ground that would serve the interests of both sides, then possibly more substantive discussions that would start to address security challenges posed by the North.

One approach where it may be possible to find common ground would be to replace the armistice in effect since the Korean War almost six decades ago with permanent arrangements to end hostilities on the peninsula, and to link that effort to limiting, reducing, and eliminating the threat from the North’s weapons of mass destruction. That would address both sides’ security concerns — the threat Pyongyang believes the United States poses, and Washington’s concerns about the North’s growing nuclear and missile programs. Such an approach might also yield an important diplomatic bonus by securing Chinese support because it shows Beijing that the United States is interested in more than just pressuring and destabilizing the North.

Four years from now, as President Obama’s second term draws to an end, the American public will focus on his domestic and foreign policy legacy, from his landmark health care program to ending the war in Afghanistan. What does he want his record on North Korea to show: a hard problem more or less contained or a rogue state armed with dozens of nuclear weapons well on its way to threatening California?