North Korea’s Nuclear Bargain

North Korea’s nuclear test on Monday is the latest in a series of provocations that challenge the international community and the Obama administration. To figure out how to respond, it helps to know why Pyongyang acted in the first place—but given the black box that is North Korea, we just don’t know. All we can rely on is informed speculation, and based on that, several factors seem to be at play.

First of all, North Korea has a technical reason to test both its long-range missiles and its nuclear device. It decided long ago to acquire these tools of power projection to deter the hostile action it believes the United States and Japan are threatening. But previous tests have been less than successful, and its “deterrent” is not yet credible. So it must test again.

Second, even as North Korea builds this deterrent, it has been willing to engage in negotiations about its nuclear program. Talks buy time but also clarify what the international community might offer if Pyongyang committed to de-nuclearization.

As the weakest party in this game, North Korea uses brinksmanship and provocation to frame those negotiations on the most favorable terms and put Washington on the defensive. It probably believes that its missile and nuclear tests in 2006 led the Bush administration to reduce demands and offer concessions. So, it asks, why not try again? It also seeks to shape the negotiating table in order to drive wedges between natural allies: the U.S. and Japan; the U.S. and South Korea; and the U.S. and China.

Third, North Korea is in the middle of a political transition. Kim Jong Il, the current leader, apparently had a stroke last August and must now scramble to create a succession arrangement. He will probably pick his youngest son, who is only 28 years old, and rely on his brother-in-law to run state affairs until his son is ready to rule. Plausibly, he needs the military to support this arrangement, and the military is most interested in proving both its missiles and nuclear weapons. So there may be a bargain at play: Kim supports testing and the military supports his succession plan.

Thus, there are converging and reinforcing reasons for North Korea to engage in its missile test on April 4 and the nuclear test on May 25. But these provocations have had diplomatic consequences. On May 26, the U.N. Security Council, which includes China and Russia, condemned North Korea’s test and said it is considering further action. Presumably, Pyongyang believes it can ride out any international response. Perhaps it doesn’t care.

In addressing the test, the Obama administration faces two challenges. On the one hand, it must balance the desire to demonstrate to Pyongyang that its provocations have consequences and the need to ensure a multilateral united front. China is the key here, because it has a veto in the U.N. Security Council and would be most affected if North Korea were to collapse as a result of external pressure.

On the other hand, the Obama team must balance what can be done in the short term with what is possible in the longer term. Getting a communist regime to change its policy behavior during leadership succession is almost impossible, particularly when that behavior is connected with the succession. It is at the end of North Korea’s political transition, which may take a couple of years, that a new leadership can assess the consequences of past policies and explore the possibilities of new ones.

The need to manage these tradeoffs suggests, therefore, a U.S. policy of firmness and patience. Washington should neither ignore Pyongyang’s actions nor rush back to the negotiation table. To hold North Korea accountable for its actions, the administration should seek the degree of punishment that the multilateral traffic will bear. While it should play the short game of remaining open to the resumption of negotiations when Pyongyang changes its tune (if only to reassure its diplomatic partners), it also should be prepared to play the long game of waiting for potential political change in North Korea.

North Korea’s recent actions suggest that it may never be willing to give up its nuclear weapons. In that case, the countries concerned will have to consider some form of multilateral containment. Yet it was the Kim dynasty that chose the misguided option of nuclear weapons to obtain security. The end of the Kim dynasty will create the possibility—and only the possibility—of a different approach.