Patience Has Not Been a Virtue

Was the Obama administration to blame for North Korea's rocket launch?

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

As anticipated for some time, the government of North Korea launched a long-range ballistic missile despite U.N. Security Council demands that Pyongyang’s leaders "not conduct any further nuclear test or any launch using ballistic missile technology."

This, the second long-range ballistic missile test launch this year, appears to have been more successful than North Korea’s four earlier such tests, dating back to 1998, and it is clearly a setback to already stalled efforts to curb North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons ambitions.

Appropriately enough, Pyongyang’s missile test has already been condemned by key international leaders. The U.N. Security Council will issue a statement, and the United States and allies will consider still tougher sanctions against the already isolated regime.

But the name, shame, and sanction approach has been tried before by the Obama administration and, at times, by the George W. Bush administration with little effect.

Kim Jong Il and his son, 29-year-old strongman Kim Jong Un, have shown they are more than willing to push forward with costly and counterproductive missile and nuclear programs while the vast majority of North Korea’s people suffer and the country’s international isolation deepens.

The latest missile launch is, in part, an effort to build internal support for Pyongyang’s new leader and distract the North Korean people from the grinding poverty, food shortages, and economic stagnation that affects all but a few of the country’s elite. The South Korean defense ministry said it believed that the purpose of the launch was to show that Kim Jong Un’s regime is in "firm control and stable." It is also most likely an attempt to improve the North’s position in any future negotiation with Washington and other members of the Six-Party Talks.

Ed Royce, a Republican from California and incoming chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a Dec. 11 statement, "I’ve been calling for a North Korea policy with energy, creativity and focus. Instead, the Obama Administration’s approach continues to be unimaginative and moribund. We can either take a different approach, or watch as the North Korean threat to the region and the U.S. grows."

He’s right. President Obama’s policy of "strategic patience" has failed to seize fleeting diplomatic opportunities and has, unsurprisingly, not worked. It’s time to make a mid-course adjustment by resuming earlier efforts to negotiate curbs on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and imposing further sanctions to affect Pyongyang’s bargaining calculus.

The Unha-3, a liquid-fueled three-stage rocket carrying an observation satellite, was launched just before 10 a.m. Korean time on Dec. 12. Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency announced shortly after the launch that the third stage of the missile, also known as the Taepo Dong-2, had lifted the payload into orbit.

Around the same time, the North American Aerospace Defense Command issued a statement saying that it had detected and tracked the missile and that it had deployed an object that "appeared to achieve orbit."

No matter whether the latest test was entirely successful or not, it has provided North Korean technicians with valuable new information. It is a significant technical accomplishment that only 10 other countries have achieved.

North Korea has been working toward a long-range ballistic missile capability for years, but its program has suffered setbacks and delays. Its Taepo Dong-2 test in April of this year failed shortly after launch, and in a 2009 test a missile traveled approximately 3,800 kilometers but did not lift its payload into orbit.

The latest missile test, however, does not by itself immediately affect the military balance in the region. A credible threat of a North Korean nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile is still years away.

Although it has conducted two nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, it is unlikely that North Korea has developed a warhead small enough for delivery by its missiles, and it has not yet flight-tested a re-entry vehicle to carry such a warhead. Additionally, its liquid-fueled missiles would have to be deployed at stationary sites, making them vulnerable to pre-emptive attack.

As Dave Montague, the former president of the missile systems division at Lockheed Martin Missile and Space, said at a Sept. 2012 press briefing, the Taepo Dong-2 is unlikely to threaten the United States because "it can’t carry enough payload to be of any significant threat. It’s a — it’s a baby satellite launcher, and not a very good one at that."

As North Korea specialist Leon Sigal has written, the frustrating history of U.S. efforts to deal with North Korea over the past quarter century has shown that "the only thing worse than negotiating with North Korea is not negotiating with North Korea."

In early 2009, instead of resuming talks with North Korea, the Obama administration sustained the suspension of promised energy aid by South Korea — aid the Bush administration had belatedly endorsed only weeks earlier. North Korea responded by stopping work to disable its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, and it conducted its second nuclear test and another missile test. International condemnation followed, but there were no talks with North Korea until Dec. 2010, by which time it had extracted plutonium from its remaining spent fuel rods at Yongbyon.

Through 2010, as tensions between South Korea and North Korea worsened, the Obama administration rebuffed North Korean overtures to resume talks until Pyongyang took "concrete actions" consistent with its earlier disarmament pledges and resolved the dispute over the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan.

It was not until July 2011 that the second high-level meeting of U.S. and North Korean envoys finally took place. Amb. Stephen Bosworth said the United States would support further Six-Party Talks if North Korea committed itself to being a constructive partner in the negotiation process.

While the White House waited for North Korea, North Korea was improving its uranium-enrichment capabilities and its leadership transition was in full swing. In October 2011, Bosworth met with his North Korean counterpart, renewing hopes that the Six-Party talks might soon resume. But less than a month later, Kim Jong Il died and more time was lost.

Finally, following a Feb. 23-24 meeting between the United States and North Korea in Beijing, the two countries announced that North Korea would suspend operations at Yongbyon, invite IAEA inspectors to monitor the suspension, and implement moratoriums on nuclear and long-range missile tests. The United States said that it would provide North Korea 240,000 metric tons of food aid under strict monitoring.

North Korea’s version of the understanding allowed for satellite launches, while the U.S. version did not. In April, Pyongyang conducted a long-range missile launch, which failed, and another opportunity was lost.

Clearly, North Korea’s negotiators are slippery and look for every advantage. But President Obama and his team have dithered and missed their fleeting chances to use diplomacy to rein in North Korea’s dangerous weapons pursuits.

Pyongyang has long tried to leverage its nuclear and missile programs to convince Washington to normalize relations and extract much needed aid, and it has reneged on its commitments. That may make negotiations with the North politically difficult and personally distasteful.

Nevertheless, it’s been negotiations with the North that have succeeded in curbing its nuclear pursuits in the past, beginning with the 1994 Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s plutonium weapons program for eight years, and the 2005 denuclearization deal that committed North Korea to pursue a step-by-step process leading to verifiable and complete disarmament.

For Washington and its allies in Asia, it is essential that North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities remain as limited as possible. As South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Jan. 2, the Korean Peninsula is "at a turning point."

Today, North Korea possesses enough plutonium for fewer than a dozen bombs, but if left unchecked, it could amass a larger and more deadly arsenal. North Korea has built centrifuge arrays that could be improved and expanded to enable it to generate enough highly enriched uranium for more nuclear weapons. A successful, third nuclear test could allow North Korea to prove a miniaturized warhead design that might be used to arm its ballistic missiles. Additional ballistic missile tests could give North Korea a militarily significant nuclear weapons delivery option.

The reality for the Obama administration, and all states in the region, including North Korea, is that they can only reduce tensions and improve stability through restraint and a resumption of a serious, direct, and ongoing dialogue and concrete, verifiable action-for-action follow-up steps.

In particular, there must be renewed efforts by China and others, especially the United States, to hold North Korea to its Feb. 29, 2012 commitment to refrain from further missile and nuclear weapons tests, and to allow for international inspection of its nuclear weapons facilities.

Rather than wait for the North Koreans to ask for renewed talks following the next round of international condemnation, Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul need to overcome their frustration and anger with the North and re-evaluate their current approach and, eventually, take the initiative by re-engaging with Pyongyang through serious, sustained direct talks.

Although North Korea’s stubborn leaders may not be willing to negotiate away their nuclear weapons program altogether, they may still be willing to abandon portions of it in exchange for improved relations with the United States and the international community.

Even North Korea’s leaders realize that the nationalistic fervor created by the test will soon fade and that it won’t do anything to help revive its economy, deliver much-needed food aid, or encourage economic investment from South Korea. 

Doing nothing in the face of the risk of new and more dangerous North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities is not a prudent option. When pursued, the strategy that has succeeded best in limiting North Korea’s nuclear and missile potential over the years has been U.S.-led disarmament diplomacy. We shouldn’t be afraid to engage.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola