Pyongyang's eagerness to conduct a nuclear test so quickly after
its long-range missile launch shows it has abandoned the
façade of negotiations and is no longer interested in
The rapid pace of North Korea's provocations since January
indicates that North Korea is intent on achieving a viable nuclear
weapon and ICBM delivery capability and recognition as a nuclear
weapons state. North Korea's longstanding goal to develop the means
to threaten the U.S. and its allies with nuclear weapons underscore
the critical need for America to develop and deploy a missile
Change in Tactics
North Korea's previous strategy was to slowly build toward an
escalatory act, thereby allowing the U.S. and its allies sufficient
time to offer new diplomatic or economic inducements. On those
occasions when North Korea carried out the act, it followed with
several months of calm to allow all countries to become accustomed
to the new elevated status quo prior to initiating the next lengthy
Since the beginning of 2009, however, North Korea has initiated
a rapid-fire series of provocations against the U.S., South Korea,
and Japan without allowing time for diplomatic outreach. It is
increasingly evident that Pyongyang is now focused on realizing
strategic technological achievements rather than gaining tactical
The change in North Korean objectives may have been triggered by
Kim Jong-il's health crisis last year. Kim may be driven by a
desire to achieve nuclear objectives prior to his death or the
formal transfer of power to a successor. Rather than incrementally
raising the ante as in the past, Kim Jong-il is now willing to risk
a high-stakes poker move by "going all in" to force international
acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power.
Pyongyang has announced that it seeks to become a "powerful
nation" by 2012, the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birth, a
possible reference to achieving formal recognition as a nuclear
Trying to Negotiate the
Despite high expectations that North Korea would adopt a
moderate policy after the change in U.S. leadership, Pyongyang has
refused repeated attempts by the Obama Administration to establish
contact. North Korea's refusal to engage in dialogue with the U.S.,
South Korea, and Japan even as economic conditions worsen is
another indication that Pyongyang is playing a new game.
North Korea will continue additional missile and nuclear
activity during 2009-- impervious to naïve initiatives such as
offering a senior-level presidential envoy for bilateral discussion
or changing the number of participants in the nuclear
North Korea may eventually be willing to return to negotiations
once it has demonstrated a clear nuclear and ICBM capability. If
Pyongyang were to return, it would do so with far greater leverage
and expectations. The most benign scenario would be for Pyongyang
to trade its future nuclear weapons capability--but not its
existing weapons inventory--in return for all of the previously
discussed economic and diplomatic benefits, though in greater
It is more likely that North Korea would demand a far greater
price for denuclearization. As it telegraphed in statements made
this past January by the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs,
Pyongyang now requires the removal of the U.S. "hostile policy."
This would likely include the abrogation of the U.S.-South Korean
defense alliance, the removal of U.S. forces from South Korea, and
the abandonment of the U.S. nuclear security guarantee toward South
Korea and Japan. A refusal by Washington and Seoul to accept such
terms would, in Pyongyang's eyes, equate to recognition as a
nuclear weapons state.
Obama Administration's Actions Fall
Short of Its Firm Rhetoric
The Obama Administration has issued commendably firm rhetoric
about the need to confront North Korea for its transgression. But
the U.S. and South Korea became complacent after attaining the
disappointedly minimalist U.N. Security Council response to the
April 4 North Korean missile launch. Both Washington and Seoul were
reticent to pursue any initiatives beyond the three North Korean
companies placed on the U.N. sanctions list.
U.S. and South Korean officials believed that they had taken the
ball as far as down the field as possible after the missile
provocation and that it was therefore best to passively wait for
Pyongyang's next belligerent act in order to persuade China to
allow pushing the ball a little further down the field. Such an
approach is deeply flawed, since it does little to pressure North
Korea, abandons any real defense of international law or the
Nonproliferation Treaty, and depends on China, a North Korean ally
that has proven time and again uninterested in bringing real
pressure to bear on the Pyongyang regime.
Washington should adopt a multi-track approach consisting of
both punitive action and dialogue: squeezing North Korea in order
to influence their negotiating behavior by enforcing U.N.
resolutions and resuming the enforcement of international law while
simultaneously offering to hold open the door for negotiations, all
the while making clear that a nuclear North Korea is unacceptable.
The U.S. should also fully fund and proceed with development and
deployment of the only really reliable option to defend itself
against a nuclear North Korea: ballistic missile defense.
China and Russia Must Step Up
The U.S., South Korea, and Japan should use North Korea's latest
outrage to demand that China and Russia agree to stronger punitive
measures in the U.N. Security Council. China has repeatedly shown
its inability or unwillingness to rein in North Korea's repudiation
of international law. Consequently, Washington should cease the
charade of praising Beijing's behavior in the six-party talks and
instead criticize its obstructionism to carrying out the will of
the international community as expressed in two U.N.
Time for Tangible Action
As a result of North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear
weapons, the U.S. should:
- Demand a U.N. resolution that sanctions all North Korean and
foreign companies, banks, and government agencies complicit in
Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs. Such a resolution should
insist upon full enforcement of extensive sanctions. A provision
for allowing the use of military means to enforce the resolution
should be included, and a 30-day deadline for North Korean
compliance should be imposed.
- Since Beijing will continue to resist enforcing existing law,
the U.S .should lead a parallel multilateral effort to augment U.N.
action. This initiative would comprise financial, military, law
enforcement, and intelligence organizations targeting both North
Korean and foreign entities.
- Resume enforcing U.S. and international law against North
Korean illicit activities such as currency counterfeiting, money
laundering, and production and distribution of illegal drugs.
Complicit foreign companies and banks should be included in such
law enforcement operations.
- Continue U.S. and allied missile defense development and
deployment and call on South Korea to deploy a multi-layered
missile defense system that is interoperable with a U.S. regional
- Urge South Korea and China to join the Proliferation Security
Is History Repeating Itself?
The nuclear stalemate with North Korea will get worse before it
has any chance of getting better. Although it is unlikely Pyongyang
ever intended to negotiate away its nuclear weapons, the recent
shift in North Korean strategy away from negotiations is troubling.
Since the U.S., South Korea, and Japan have remained resolute in
the face of North Korean provocations, Kim Jong-il will feel it
necessary to ratchet up tensions even further.
Pyongyang will continue its belligerent behavior by conducting
additional missile and nuclear tests to advance its technical
capabilities. North Korea may also risk more direct confrontations,
such as a naval clash along the disputed inter-Korean maritime
boundary in the West Sea.
Ironies abound in President Obama's approach toward North Korea.
For all of his criticism of the Bush Administration's tactics,
President Obama was prepared to simply adopt the same policy of the
last two years of the Bush Administration, a policy that had failed
to achieve success. Following North Korea's belligerence, rejection
of dialogue, and provocations, President Obama has now adopted the
policy and rhetoric of the first six years of President Bush.
North Korean actions and U.S. rhetoric in 2009 are strikingly
similar to those of the 2003 crisis. The danger in such an approach
is that both countries may be following the same paths that led to
military confrontation in 1994. In an international confrontation
where an irresistible force meets an immovable object, the danger
of escalation arising from miscalculation rises exponentially.
Klingner is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia in the
Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.