North Korea’s misconduct is directed at three men it hopes will play the role of patsy: President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Pentagon-boss-nominee Chuck Hagel. It is largely for their benefit that North Korea created a video of New York being decimated, and for them that North Korea is threatening its third test of a nuclear device.
For decades, North Korea under the Kim family dictatorship has set a consistent pattern. It engages in outrageously provocative activity from building nuclear weapons, to testing long-range ballistic missiles, to shelling South Korean islands, and even sinking a South Korean ship in 2010.
Then it signals a possible softening of conduct in order to reap foreign aid from its neighbors and the United States. North Korea then pockets the aid and never delivers the goods—its nuclear program—then starts the cycle of aggression over again. In the mean time, Pyongyang earns itself hundreds of millions of dollars a year from weapons proliferation to other odious regimes, and illicit trades like drugs and trafficking in persons.
The security threat is not only that North Korea might directly strike a U.S. ally like Japan, which is within the range of its missiles, or the United States itself, which soon will be. A more immediate problem is that North Korea has proliferated every major weapon system it has developed.
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Furthermore, Pyongyang’s cooperation with U.S. adversaries on nuclear matters is not just a theory. It helped Syria build a carbon copy of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility, before the Israelis thankfully blew it up in 2007. There are also media reports of North Korean scientists present at Iran’s nuclear-weapons-related facilities. One day, a bomb made with Pyongyang’s help could go off in an American or allied city, whether launched, or perhaps more likely, smuggled in.
While Washington pays lip service to this threat, it clearly is not prepared to do much about it—at least nothing serious. In the un-serious category, Washington is likely to try negotiations with North Korea again.
To her credit, Hillary Clinton never fell for this trap. Having seen the State Department suckered by North Korea during both her husband’s administration and the tenure of her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, she refused to be drawn to the negotiating table at which North Korea is the master of trading fake promises for real cash.
Now Pyongyang thinks its prospects have improved. It is almost certainly right. Obama’s instincts have always been inclined toward wheeling-and-dealing with America’s adversaries, while keeping traditional allies at arm’s length. This was the story of his first inaugural address and many of the diplomatic initiatives of his first term.
Now freed of even the relatively moderating voices of Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, Obama can sow his wild oats. National Security Council meetings will now feature Obama, Biden, Kerry and probably Chuck Hagel. All are former senators wedded to the Washington foreign policy establishment and its endless capacity for thinking the best of enemies and the worst of allies. It's a foregone conclusion that these men almost certainly will want to take another try at the Lucy’s football that is negotiating with the Kims.
Washington is already getting warmed up. Right on cue, the Asia hands in the State Department bureaucracy are making noises that “We’ve never tried talking to North Korea’s new leader.”
The fact that the conduct of the scion of Pyongyang already matches his father’s and grandfather’s even more than his ample physique isn’t likely to give Team Obama pause. The young dictator, Kim Jong Un, knows this and suspects he not only can get away with increasingly belligerent activity—but will in fact be rewarded for it. He also knows as much as any dictator that democracies have an unfortunate habit of ignoring or explaining away the explicit threats made by repressive regimes. This will be reinforced by Washington shrugging off Kim’s new fantasy video of New York under attack. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
The alternative to this it to use smart power against North Korea. Wage peaceful political war on the regime. Support its opponents, especially defectors who have escaped to South Korea. Enable refugees who fled starvation and tyranny to talk to the family members and compatriots they left behind in North Korea—the type of expanded radio broadcasting and other strategic communications that helped undermine communism in the former Soviet Bloc.
Name and shame governments like South Korea’s when they provide assistance to North Korea that helps the regime survive.
Shut down banks around the world that help Pyongyang by banning them from dollar-denominated accounts and transactions; something that dealt a deep blow to North Korea when it was applied to a single foreign bank in 2007.
And, finally, stop accepting China’s mendacious claims to be pressuring its ally in Pyongyang—something it has never seriously done other than for a few brief days when it cut off fuel supplies to North Korea after its first nuclear test in 2006.
In short, treat an adversary like an adversary. Paradoxically, getting tough with the regime and seeking its ultimate, peaceful end may increase the chances of a nuclear deal. Ronald Reagan proved that being candid about an enemy can actually entice it into a real arms control treaty because the enemy will finally see it as a least-worst option.
Reagan and the Soviets agreed to ban a class of nuclear weapons at the same time he was calling their regime evil and urging it onto the ash heap of history. It came on the heels of enhancements to allied defenses. This approach is consistent with American values and prioritizes working with our traditional allies.
Sadly, it would have to be "opposite day" for the Obama patsies and the Washington foreign policy establishment to do the same with the North Korean regime.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).