The Land of Lesser Evils

North Korea's planned missile launch isn't reason enough to walk away from the negotiating table. It's all about politics in Pyongyang -- and in fact, it's an opening for Obama.

KNS/AFP/Getty Images
KNS/AFP/Getty Images

Hours after arriving in Seoul for his third visit as president, Barack Obama — behind a thick plate of bulletproof glass, wearing an Air Force One leather jacket that looked pretty bulletproof itself — stood on the demilitarized zone peering through binoculars into the haze of North Korea, a ritual performed by George W. Bush ten years ago and Bill Clinton a decade before that. Perhaps standing so close to North Korea inspired Obama to address Pyongyang directly for the first time since taking office. In the middle of a speech to South Korean students at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies the following day, Obama abruptly looked into the cameras and said: "I want to speak directly to the leaders in Pyongyang. The United States has no hostile intent toward your country. We are committed to peace. And we are prepared to take steps to improve relations, which is why we have offered nutritional aid to North Korean mothers and children."

Obama had the right idea in trying to get a direct channel to Pyongyang, but a public speech delivered on television in a third country isn’t enough. And despite Pyongyang’s recent bad behavior, if the U.S. president wants to avert the latest mini-crisis, kicked up by Pyongyang’s intention to launch a satellite rocket in mid-April, he’s got to find another way to actually reach the leaders of North Korea.

But so far, things aren’t heading in that direction. Indeed, only a couple hours after his speech to university students on Monday, March 26, Obama was venting his anger to Hu Jintao over North Korea’s latest mischief and its seeming refusal to engage. After all, it’s only been a few weeks since the United States and North Korea made their "Leap Day Deal" in which Pyongyang promised to suspend its nuclear activities, reopen its declared nuclear site to International Atomic Energy Agency inspection, and suspend both nuclear and long-range missile tests, in return for the United States promising 20,000 tons a month of nutritional assistance to feed hungry North Koreans for the next year. The Leap Day deal was the first major foreign relations move of the Kim Jong Un regime and the first time the Obama administration negotiated an agreement on anything with North Korea. Yet Pyongyang’s announcement of a satellite launch just two weeks after the deal seemed calculated to trash the agreement and provoke the United States. The United States sees no meaningful distinction between launching a satellite rocket and testing a ballistic missile, given the considerable overlap in "dual-use" technology to perform both feats. The planned launch would therefore abrogate the Leap Day deal and flaunt United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874 that "demanded" North Korea desist from "any launch using ballistic missile technology." Even North Korea’s offer to invite foreign experts and journalists to "ensure maximum transparency" is dismissed as a marketing tool for its missile exports. Japan’s former minister of defense Yuriko Koike summed up a widely held view when she wrote that Pyongyang’s young leader is up to the same "old tricks" of his father.

Now comes the moment of truth for Obama’s Korea policy. The safe response is to keep leaning on China and other countries to condemn Pyongyang’s planned launch, and then tighten sanctions and push for a U.N. Security Council resolution after it happens. But the safe, obvious move is also the wrong one. Washington needs to pay more attention to the domestic political context of North Korean foreign policy-making after the death of Kim Jong Il, and to advance down — not retreat from — the tortuous path of engaging Pyongyang.

In looking at what is known about North Korean foreign policy, it appears that Kim’s move was actually somewhat restrained. Before his death, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il proclaimed April 15, 2012 — the 100th anniversary of Eternal President Kim Il Sung’s birth — as demarcating Year One of North Korea’s emergence as a "strong and prosperous great nation." There are much more provocative ways that Pyongyang could have decided to celebrate the occasion — from a third nuclear test to another military clash in the West Sea. The space launch, while alarming to U.S. officials, is not nearly so bellicose. Rather, it is intended to serve as a dramatic, visible symbol of this new era in North Korea, one that overshadows the dark reality of economic hardship and privation. Given South Korea’s repeated failure to launch a satellite, the successful flight of North Korea’s "Gwangmyongsung-3" rocket has an added benefit as a propaganda asset in Pyongyang’s rivalry with Seoul — one of very few that remain.

Although from an American perspective the satellite announcement is a slap in the face, by the standards of domestic politics in Pyongyang, the space launch seems the most moderate option, one that leaves a crack open for further negotiation. Washington’s top strategic priority is to rein in North Korea’s nuclear threat and continue to provide for the security of its close ally South Korea. Another satellite/missile launch is not a game changer. But in focusing everything on the planned launch — and ignoring the political constraints in Pyongyang in the early post-Kim Jong Il era — the United States and its allies seem ready to shut the door of engagement for good and throw away the key. That would be a terrible mistake.

As it’s currently playing out, the satellite/missile quagmire will likely trigger another round in the vicious and protracted cycle of crime and punishment on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea, already in the middle of large-scale military exercises, has promised to show no restraint if provoked again by the North, and has requested enhanced long-range missile capability from the United States. Generals in Seoul and Tokyo are threatening to shoot the rocket down if it nears their territory. And the recent Nuclear Security Summit became a global forum for denouncing North Korea’s "provocation," with even Chinese President Hu Jintao allowing others to quote him as taking (what is for China) a hardline on Pyongyang.

But such megaphone diplomacy will not make things better. On the contrary, it will aggravate the problem by strengthening the hand of hardliners over the moderates in Pyongyang, and thus steel Kim Jong Un’s resolve to undertake the space launch as scheduled. The United States would then presumably take prompt measures to punish North Korea’s "crime" by bringing the case to the U.N. Security Council, which would probably produce some kind of statement denouncing Pyongyang’s behavior. Meanwhile, the United States and South Korea would further tighten the noose of sanctions around North Korea’s neck, and the situation would become tenser than before the Leap Day deal.

Most experts — even many longtime advocates of engagement — are arguing that there is now simply no justification for dealing with Pyongyang. But as Obama may have mused when peering across the hazy border, there is a powerful tendency to ignore the complexity of what is happening inside North Korea. Both to de-escalate tensions and gather a sense of the situation inside, Obama should send an envoy to Pyongyang to discuss the deteriorating situation — among U.S. senators, John Kerry would be the obvious choice; among former officials, Colin Powell might make a strong pick. Whoever the individual, Obama’s envoy would ideally be someone senior enough for a first tête-à-tête with Kim Jong Un. Even announcing the idea of an envoy buys everyone some time, cools tempers, and puts the United States back in the driver’s seat. It also gives Obama a direct channel to the highest levels of decision-making power in Pyongyang. Although Obama risks attacks from the right for appeasing North Korea, he is better off trying to re-establish a constructive dynamic to monitor North Korea’s nuclear program, rather than risk drawing attention in an election year to North Korea’s runaway nukes, undermining the international nuclear security success story Obama wants to tell.

The gesture of sending an envoy to Pyongyang also helps Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy and therefore represents a valuable gift to his nascent regime, affording those who seek improved relations with the United States — like the foreign ministry — some leverage vis-à-vis hard-liners. Given Obama’s promise that U.S. policy towards North Korea does not include regime change, it makes sense to learn how to work with their new leadership. Obama’s envoy to Pyongyang could put North Korea in a reactive position by floating bold initiatives, such as an offer to launch North Korea’s satellite into orbit on its behalf, or volunteer Russia or China to do so — an idea broached by Kim Jong Il in his 2000 summit meeting with Vladimir Putin.

Obama’s envoy could also press to renew missile control talks, which were close to a breakthrough when President Bill Clinton sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang to meet directly with Kim Jong Il in late 2000 — as Wendy Sherman, now under secretary of state, then a counselor to Albright on the Pyongyang trip, knows better than anyone. In direct talks, Kim Jong Il showed considerable flexibility in devising a deal by which the North would give up its missile program in return for an American package — a package that included proxy launches of North Korean civilian satellites. But the incoming George W. Bush administration scuttled the deal as part of its ABC ("Anything but Clinton") approach to foreign policy. No missile talks have been held in the dozen years since.

Today, North Korea stands at the crossroads of sticking with "military-first" politics or striving to become a normal, integrated state under new leadership. The Leap Day deal signals that the Foreign Ministry has some leeway to pursue the latter. But inflexible reactions to the satellite launch, while completely justified from an American perspective, will most likely empower North Korean hardliners, while undercutting the position of party cadres and bureaucrats who are in favor of diplomatic normalization and economic opening and betterment.

Particularly now, just months after only the second leadership transition in North Korea’s 63-year history, any policy toward that country must factor in domestic politics. President Obama should get this, given his recent hot mic candor about his election year delicacies to Dmitry Medvedev regarding the U.S. missile-defense program. This is not the time to overreact or fall back on the platitude that "the ball is in North Korea’s court." President Obama’s more prudent course of action is to continue persistently, but cautiously, with the process of engagement. An envoy would be the logical first step. If Obama is serious that he wants to "speak directly to the leaders in Pyongyang," the place to do that is not Seoul, Beijing, or New York. It’s Pyongyang.

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