The United States faces a number of seemingly insolvable international problems. Iran and the Middle East immediately come to mind. We could easily find ourselves at war with a theocracy living largely in the 12th or 13 century — with the exception of its weapons, especially if it gets nuclear weapons.
North Korea also presents a major military threat. It has shown it has nuclear weapons, and it either has or shortly will test missiles with nuclear warheads.
To its credit, the Obama administration, and particularly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have refused to accept failure. She was certain that careful, albeit tough negotiations with Pyongyang could turn matters around. After considerable patience and work, Washington succeeded in getting North Korea to agree to a moratorium on nuclear testing and work at the Yongbyon nuclear facility. North Korea also agreed to admit International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear inspectors. The quid pro quo was Washington’s agreement to provide the starving country with 240,000 tons of food aid and certain other items of importance.
Just as my former colleagues were congratulating themselves for getting the North Korean leadership to agree to cap its nuclear missile program, Pyongyang announced that it would be firing an intercontinental missile (ICBM) in April on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, the country’s founder and in the eyes of most of the population a man of saintly and super-human capabilities. The announcement came as a shock to the Obama administration, and to his credit, President Obama took a hard line.
Obama made it clear that he did not accept the North Korean fable about this being a “peaceful” test, one that had nothing to do with the weapons programs. As the North Koreans put it, “the satellite launch is for peaceful purposes , which is a legitimate right of a sovereign state and requirement for economic development.” One could easily replace scientific equipment with an atomic warhead.
Obama was in South Korea at a summit on security issues when this occurred, and said, “North Korea will achieve nothing by threats or provocations.” Indeed, after visiting the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone and its intensely patrolled no-man’s land between the North and the South, Obama said, “It’s like you’re in a time warp. It’s like you’re looking across 50 years into a country that has dismissed 40 years or 50 years of progress.”
Lest North Korea have any doubts, Obama made it clear that the launch was a deal killer. “Bad behavior will not be rewarded,” he said, adding, “There has been a pattern, I think for decades in which North Korea thought if they had acted provocatively, then somehow they would be bribed into ceasing and desisting acting provo-catively.”
Why would a political elite reigning over a starving citizenry do something that cost them 240,000 tons of food? If I could answer that question, at least five countries (the other members of the Six-Party Talks) would make me a diplomatic hero. Indeed, many observers who claim that the Chinese understand the North Koreans are wrong. The Chinese are stuck with North Korea. They have no alternative but to prop the regime up. Otherwise the country would collapse and hundreds of thousands of hungry people would make their way to China. This is why Beijing has argued that the outside world should move slowly in dealing with this last relic of the Cold War.
Another factor behind North Korea’s behavior is its isolation. There is virtually no access to foreign information, whether written or broadcast. Furthermore Pyongyang not only carries the Confucian ethic of obedience to an extreme, but it is uncertain if the leadership really understands the outside world. What if the bureaucracy only tells the leader what he wants to hear?
As for the missile launch, I doubt Kim Jong-un will ever fully give up the atomic program. As an internationally isolated dictator, he has no reason to do so. Furthermore, given the religious fervor with which the three Kims are treated, the grandfather, the father and now Kim Jon Un, there is little chance the North Koreans will decide not to fire the missile when they said they would. In North Korea today, failure to go through with the launch would be considered sacrilegious.
I applaud the Obama administration for reacting with the speed and strength that it did. Now, if we could just get it to react similarly with Iran.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.