• Heritage Action
  • Heritage Libertad
  • More

How Should the U.S. Handle North Korea?

By

The United Nations' feckless defense of Security Council resolutions demanding Pyongyang abandon its missile and nuclear programs bodes ill for diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea and prevent further proliferation.

China's willingness to derail international efforts to punish North Korea for its blatant violation plucks the fig leaf from the cherished misconception of Beijing as a "responsible stakeholder." The failure of diplomatic pressure to deter North Korea's provocative missile launch is also a stark reminder of the need for continued development and deployment of U.S. missile defense at a time when the Obama administration instead plans to slash the budget by 16 percent.

The administration chose consensus over confrontation at the U.N. And as a result, in deference to veto-wielding China and Russia, the U.N. Security Council was able to agree only on a nonbinding presidential statement reiterating demands for compliance with 3-year-old Resolutions 1695 and 1718.

North Korea predictably responded to President Obama's soft touch by kicking out international inspectors, threatening to build more nuclear weapons, abandoning all previous disarmament pledges and vowing to "never return" to the already moribund Six Party Talks. Pyongyang's escalating belligerence, including threats last month against civilian airliners, eviscerates claims that it would be more accommodating once President Bush left office. Prior to its missile launch, Pyongyang rejected repeated Obama administration invitations to bilateral dialogue.

Pyongyang's proscribed launch is a tangible manifestation of the continuing threat that ballistic missiles pose to the United States and its allies. Though depicted as a "failure," North Korea's missile flight successfully more than doubled the previous range of its missile threat and demonstrated Pyongyang's continuing intent to develop the capability to threaten the entire United States with a nuclear warhead.

It was reassuring that the U.S. and Japan had missile-defense systems in place to provide protection had the test launch gone astray. The absence of missile defense during a real threat scenario would leave the U.S. with dangerously inadequate policy choices of pre-emption or retaliation.

North Korea's defiance represents the first foreign policy test of whether the Obama administration's actions will match its strong rhetoric. Mr. Obama has asserted that "sanctions are a critical part of our leverage to pressure North Korea to act. If the North Koreans do not meet their obligations, we should move quickly to reimpose sanctions that have been waived and consider new restrictions going forward."

He insisted that "rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something." The Obama administration's response to North Korea's missile provocation must therefore send a strong signal that Pyongyang cannot continue to benefit from brinksmanship.

The U.S. has policy options; we lack only the resolve to implement them. The administration should immediately utilize the Security Council statement for initiating a multilateral effort to freeze and seize the assets of any North Korean and foreign government agency or company violating U.N. resolutions prohibiting the procurement and export of missile- and WMD-related components and technology.

Nations should also resume enforcing international law against North Korean or foreign entities complicit in Pyongyang's illegal counterfeiting and drug-smuggling activities. The only time the U.S. has really gotten North Korea's attention was three years ago, when it designated Banco Delta Asia, a Macau-based bank, a "primary money laundering concern" in facilitating North Korean counterfeiting and drug smuggling.

At the same time, the U.S. should make clear that it leaves open the door to the Six Party Talks as well as being amenable to adding lanes in the road of engagement, including missile negotiations. A more comprehensive strategy would offer Pyongyang a path to greater economic and diplomatic benefits.

It's not a question of whether to engage North Korea, but of how to do so. Engagement, like sanctions, is not an ends in itself but rather a means to induce change. As such, it must be used in conjunction with the full range of the instruments of national power, including principled diplomacy, military deterrence, and energetic enforcement of U.N. Security Council resolutions, U.S. law and international law.

Negotiations should be based on principles of compliance, conditionality, reciprocity and verification. The Obama administration should not offer additional inducements to simply buy Pyongyang's return to the negotiating table. Nor should any new diplomatic initiatives be allowed to deflect attention from Pyongyang's denuclearization requirements.

Some still advocate the failed policy of offering yet another unconditional inducement to Pyongyang in the vain hope that it will finally secure North Korean compliance. But like the glassy-eyed gambler feeding yet another coin into a one-armed bandit, such a policy offers little hope of success. During its last two years, the Bush administration engaged in the direct, bilateral diplomacy with Pyongyang that the Obama administration advocates today. Yet North Korean intransigence, noncompliance and brinksmanship continued.

There may simply be no set of inducements that ensures North Korea abandons its nuclear weapons. There is a growing sense that Pyongyang's antics and stalling tactics are not merely negotiating ploys, but instead are designed to achieve international acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power. North Korean officials have repeatedly indicated that is precisely their intention.

Washington should therefore discuss contingency plans with South Korea and Japan, should the Six Party Talks no longer seem to be a viable policy option. In coming months, Pyongyang will likely engage in even more provocative behavior. The Obama administration and its allies are in for an increasingly bumpy ride.

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

First appeared in the Washington Times

Heritage's daily Morning Bell e-mail keeps you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.


The subscription is free and delivers you the latest conservative policy perspectives on the news each weekday--straight from Heritage experts.


The Morning Bell is your daily wake-up call offering a fresh, conservative analysis of the news.


More than 200,000 Americans rely on Heritage's Morning Bell to stay up to date on the policy battles that affect them.


Rush Limbaugh says "The Heritage Foundation's Morning Bell is just terrific!"


Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) says it's "a great way to start the day for any conservative who wants to get America back on track."


Sign up to start your free subscription today!