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North Korea’s successful missile launch, purportedly to orbit a weather satellite, highlights President Obama’s sustained indifference to this repressive regime. While Pyongyang’s rocket tests have had decidedly mixed results, its nuclear weapons program has proceeded apace during four years of U.S. inattention, increasing the risks in northeast Asia and globally.
Mr. Obama’s quiescence on North Korea is unfortunately symptomatic of his inability or unwillingness to acknowledge, let alone confront, threats to America’s interests, and those of its friends and allies.
In 2009, the Obama administration’s approach to Pyongyang appeared unexpectedly realistic. The White House initially seemed to abandon the Clinton-Bush obsession with making deals involving tangible economic and political concessions to North Korea in exchange for yet more promises to terminate its nuclear weapons program. Mr. Obama rightly believed that avidly pursuing such negotiations, offering one “compromise” after another, simply reinforced the North’s craving for attention without producing results.
So transparent was its mendacity, par for its history of diplomacy with America since the Korean War, that even former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s chief negotiator came to admit it. Christopher Hill said in January of 2011 that there was “absolutely no value” in resuming the failed six-party talks because of sustained North Korean duplicity. Better late than never.
But Mr. Obama’s reluctance to engage the North, simply abandoning the misguided Clinton-Bush diplomacy, is nothing to write home about. Not making unforced concessions that have the political or economic effect of propping up the regime, which repeatedly promises to give up its nuclear program but never does, avoids one erroneous path but follows another. In fact, administration passivity simply permitted the North to proceed essentially unimpeded.
United Nations Security Council sanctions after Pyongyang’s second nuclear test in 2009 only marginally tightened those imposed in 2006 after the first detonation and repeated missile tests; unfortunately, none of the sanctions have been stringently enforced. Before long, the Obama administration reverted to its predecessors’ approach, failing as they did. (On Wednesday, the Security Council condemned the latest missile launch, saying it will urgently consider “an appropriate response.”)
Just because North Korea’s nuclear weapons program hasn’t been on the front pages or at the center of political debate doesn’t mean the uranium-enrichment centrifuges haven’t been spinning. In fact, the North brazenly revealed an extensive new centrifuge facility in 2010, asserting that its enrichment program had begun only two years before. Nor can we conclude that the North’s extensive network of underground facilities hasn’t been manufacturing new nuclear weapons, improving warhead designs by reducing their size and weight, or expanding its nuclear infrastructure. Lack of news about the North isn’t good news; it’s simply bad news we haven’t yet heard.
North Korea thus provides a paradigm of the dangers of a hands-off approach to international threats. Unfortunately, for four years, national security matters have generally sunk into obscurity, except where incidents such as the murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya has slapped America back into awareness. Mr. Obama’s lack of interest because of his near-total concentration on domestic priorities has been a major factor: When a president abjures his bully pulpit, no one else can comparably focus the national attention. But Republicans are also complicit; reticence in critiquing the administration’s policy errors and offering workable options has significantly contributed to the national blindness to foreign threats.
Shortly after Kim Jong-un assumed leadership of the world’s only hereditary communist dictatorship, the North’s failed April missile launch provided an opportune moment to weaken the regime and hasten its ultimate collapse. Indeed, Kim Jong-il’s death and the ensuing succession process was an opening to destabilize the North Korean police state, and work toward reunifying the Korean Peninsula, America’s declared objective since 1945.
Rather than undertaking the admittedly arduous task of persuading China’s leadership to follow the logic of its own opposition to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and help reunify Korea, Washington has simply accepted the continued existence of this bizarre, nuclear-capable dictatorship. Only Beijing can strong-arm Pyongyang to renounce nuclear weapons or move it toward reunification. China has done neither. In fact, its trade has substantially increased recently, even as South Korea, Japan and others have reduced theirs.
China supplies 90 per cent or more of North Korea’s energy supplies, and substantial amounts of food and other humanitarian aid. China also facilitates the North’s evasion of international sanctions, and flies political cover for it in the Security Council. Reversing all or most of these policies would have a profound impact on the Pyongyang regime.
The reality is that, as long as North Korea exists, its nuclear program will be a central element of its identity and strategy for regime survival. If Mr. Obama’s first term is any guide, he will, after some obligatory rhetoric, return to ignoring North Korea’s threat. Unfortunately, the North’s nuclear menace will proceed apace, whether or not we pay it any attention. But the price of indifference today will only mean greater danger to come.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.