January 28, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Southeast Asia

Pyongyang's Shot Across Obama's Bow

You'd think North Korea would at least wait for Barack Obama to enter the Oval Office before testing his mettle. But through a series of provocative statements, Pyongyang has already thrown down the gauntlet. That's one way to force yourself higher up the president's agenda.

North Korea's renewed threats do not indicate major hostilities are imminent. However, they could easily presage another round of tactical naval confrontations with South Korea. Pyongyang's belligerent rhetoric also indicates that the Six Party Talks will progress only fitfully, if at all. So much for expectations that the Obama presidency would usher in an era of greater cooperation.

In recent days North Korea sharply raised the ante for Pyongyang's promised denuclearization. It's unlikely that either the U.S. or South Korea will play at such high stakes.

On Jan. 13 the North Korean Foreign Ministry asserted that Pyongyang will denuclearize only after Washington ceases its "hostile policy" and the two nations establish formal diplomatic relations. On Jan. 17 a North Korean military spokesman threatened an "all-out confrontation posture to shatter" the South Korean government. Pyongyang also warned of tactical military action, most likely along the western maritime boundary, the site of two deadly clashes between North and South Korean navies in 1999 and 2002. Seoul responded by convening an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, heightening its military alert status and requesting increased U.S. surveillance flights.

Also on Jan. 17, U.S. academic Selig Harrison announced that North Korean officials had further hardened their negotiating position, indicating that normalization of relations between the U.S. and North Korea was no longer sufficient grounds for abandoning its nuclear weapons. Senior officials had told him, "There'll be no change in our status as a nuclear state as long as U.S. nuclear threat remains." Mr. Harrison also reported North Korean claims to have weaponized all of its plutonium stocks, sufficient for four to six nuclear weapons.

Some analysts will dismiss the North Korean missives as simply negotiating through the headlines. These optimists will remain hopeful that, deep down inside, Pyongyang's really wants to reach out to the new U.S. administration.

But logically, the North Korean statements can only be interpreted as a shot across the bow of the Obama administration. On a tactical negotiating level, Pyongyang seeks to undermine the U.S. push for a rigorous verification accord. To do this, it now raises the specter of placing North Korean inspectors in South Korean and U.S. military facilities as well as any U.S. ships, subs, or planes deployed for military exercises.

On a more strategic level, North Korea's statements send a strongly negative signal. The message: North Korea will not adopt a more accommodating stance now that President Bush has left office. Contrary to the terms of the existing six- party talks agreement, North Korea has rebuffed the U.S. perception that Pyongyang's weapons would be abandoned during the forthcoming phase three of the talks. Furthermore, it is now insisting that Washington abandon its "hostile policy" before Pyongyang starts living up to the agreement.

"Hostile policy" is a vague term; Pyongyang has not defined its demands. But they could include: cessation of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, downsizing or removing all U.S. forces in Korea; entering a formal non-aggression pact; abrogating the U.S.-South Korean alliance or abandoning the U.S. nuclear guarantee. (North Korean officials have made numerous private comments to their U.S. counterparts that Pyongyang has little interest in actually abandoning its nuclear weapons.) North Korea had been expected to wait until the new American president unveiled his North Korean policy before unveiling its strategy toward the new administration. Pyongyang's pre-emptive action may have been prompted by recent statements from now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Deputy Secretary of Defense-designate William Lynn. Those comments suggested that President Obama's policy might be less accommodating than North Korea may have initially anticipated.

As President Obama confronts a belligerent Pyongyang, he should affirm U.S. intent to use diplomacy to achieve North Korean denuclearization, but not at the cost of abandoned principles or dangerously insufficient compliance. He should emphasize that the U.S. objective remains the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea. And he should state unequivocally that Washington will not accept North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state.

He should firmly reject North Korean claims that the U.S. "hostile policy" is to blame for the six -party talks impasse and insist that Pyongyang comply with existing denuclearization commitments before initiating any discussions of conventional force reductions, peace treaties, or establishment of formal diplomatic relations.

President Obama should not sacrifice our Asian allies on the altar of perceived progress in the six-party talks. Washington should ensure close policy coordination with Seoul and Tokyo in the six-party talks while strengthening our military alliances. U.S. negotiators should emphasize that North Korea's refusal for dialogue with Seoul and Tokyo hinders both their ability to provide benefits through the six-party talks process and their capacity to offer bilateral economic assistance.

Finally, President Obama should realize that there may not be a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear problem. While hopeful for successful six-party talks, the Obama administration should concurrently start contingency planning with South Korea and Japan to consider next steps if negotiations no longer seem to be a viable policy option.

Bruce Klingner, is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in the Washington Times