Hyping North Korea’s nuclear threat

North Korea derives satisfaction from international condemnation. Time for a more nuanced approach. By Donald G. Gross Let’s be honest:  North Korea’s nuclear test on Sunday does not, as U.S. President Barack Obama put it, “pose a grave threat to the peace and stability of the world” much beyond the threat that North Korea posed ...

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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about North Korea in the Rose Garden of the White House Washington, D.C., U.S., Monday, May 25, 2009. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg News

North Korea derives satisfaction from international condemnation. Time for a more nuanced approach.

By Donald G. Gross


North Korea derives satisfaction from international condemnation. Time for a more nuanced approach.

By Donald G. Gross

Let’s be honest:  North Korea’s nuclear test on Sunday does not, as U.S. President Barack Obama put it, “pose a grave threat to the peace and stability of the world” much beyond the threat that North Korea posed on Saturday — the day before it conducted the test. And hyping the test, as Obama did in his White House statement, actually makes matters worse.

To understand why, think back to your schoolyard days. The bullies who tried to rule the playground became more powerful if their victims grew upset. This time, North Korea is the menace, and the strong U.S. rhetoric only brings satisfaction to that country’s misguided leadership. Raising the stakes increases Pyongyang’s diplomatic leverage and makes it even harder to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program. The United States is giving this bully exactly what it craves.

North Korea has had a proven nuclear weapons capability since October 2006, when it carried out its first nuclear test. Back then, U.S. intelligence estimated that Pyongyang possessed enough nuclear material to build six to eight nuclear bombs. North Korea has not added to its nuclear stockpile since its first test, thanks to the hard-nosed diplomacy pursued in the second Bush term through Amb. Christopher Hill, who persuaded Pyongyang to disable its reactor at Yongbyon.

It is understandable that some Obama advisors would like the young president to appear tough and resolute. But one of the lessons the Bush administration learned, after difficult years of dealing with North Korea, is to respond to Pyongyang’s brinkmanship with calm and quiet determination. This is the one diplomatic approach most likely to give pause to Kim Jong Il and his generals — and the Obama administration would do well to give it a try.

The greater the threat North Korea appears to pose, the more satisfaction it gives that country’s leadership and the more diplomatic leverage it confers on the cabal in Pyongyang. They see nuclear weapons as a way to compensate for the country’s severe economic failure, extreme poverty, and inability to feed its own citizens. The sad truth is that the people of North Korea are the foremost victims of their leaders’ nuclear policies.

Let’s imagine what might happen if, instead of showing patient disapproval, the Obama administration gets drawn into a game of chicken with Pyongyang. Signaling that a U.S. military response is “on the table” would merely further North Korea’s strategy of brinkmanship. Threatening bombing or a naval blockade could well be a self-fulfilling prophecy — if it becomes necessary to act to preserve U.S. “credibility.”

But making good on military threats wouldn’t work, in any case. After talking with his security advisors, President Obama will discover, if he hasn’t already, that the United States does not have any good military options for eliminating North Korea’s nuclear program. Quite the contrary:  U.S. military action could trigger war on the Korean peninsula, putting at serious risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans, not to mention American troops.

What to do?

Energizing the Six Party nuclear talks and pursuing vigorous bilateral diplomacy to advance a creative negotiated settlement with North Korea is not just the best option, it is also the only real way to preserve stability in Northeast Asia — the shared goal of the United States and its closest allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, as well as China and Russia.

Rallying the U.N. Security Council to condemn Pyongyang is a necessary step, but going down the road of simply isolating and imposing further sanctions on North Korea will not achieve the results the U.S. seeks. Pressure on North Korea needs to be coupled with other diplomatic measures that strengthen Pyongyang’s sense of security (independent of nuclear weapons) and help reverse its economic decline.

To persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear capability, the United States and the international community must take away that country’s best weapon: fear. Through careful calculation and skillful diplomacy, the world can overcome the menace by proving that Pyongyang’s desire for security, respect and economic growth are best achieved through other, less hostile means.

Donald G. Gross is former counselor of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.  He currently serves as adjunct fellow of Pacific Forum CSIS, a research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies
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Photo: Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images

Donald G. Gross is adjunct fellow of Pacific Forum CSIS, a nonprofit foreign-policy research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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