No-Drama Obama and the North Koreans

Michael E. O’Hanlon

In the expectation that North Korea will soon test a long-range rocket — disguised as a space launch vehicle but more likely an intercontinental ballistic missile that could perhaps carry a nuclear warhead to the United States — certain analysts have suggested a strong response.

Some have argued for shooting down the missile shortly after its launch, a feat the United States might now be capable of, using Navy ships operating east of North Korea, below the expected trajectory of the rocket.

Such a reaction would be a mistake at this juncture. So would less extreme steps, such as an effort to propose a significant tightening of U.N. sanctions against the North Korean regime. The Obama administration, still establishing itself in office and without some of its top Asia hands yet in place, may feel excessive pressure to act tough after such an event, but it should be patient for now.

Begin with the fundamentals. A test of a three-stage missile is unfortunate and highly undesirable. But it is not brutal or tragic or Earth-shattering. Missiles themselves are not weapons of mass destruction, even if they are often capable of carrying such weapons. Accordingly, no international treaty regime bans such tests or the development and production of these technologies.

As such, the U.N. measures requiring that North Korea avoid such provocations, while legitimate, do not have quite the strong and long-standing foundation of a major treaty. (Recall as well that, while it hardly makes us happy in the process, Iran routinely launches medium-range missiles and we do nothing about it.)

Put a different way, while bad, this test does not even rank among the worst of North Korea’s recent actions. In 2002, it announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and proceeded to tell all international nuclear inspectors to leave the country. It then took spent fuel out of small nuclear reactors and reprocessed that fuel — providing purified plutonium that has probably since been turned into actual warheads. If North Korea built six to eight weapons with this material, as suspected, that would be a huge increase in its arsenal, previously estimated at one to two nuclear warheads dating back to the first Bush administration. It later tested a nuclear device in 2006.

Beyond its nuclear violations, North Korea continues to run a gulag of prisons that house tens of thousands of political prisoners. It mismanages an economy that has resulted in death by starvation or malnutrition of up to a couple of million of its own people in the past 15 years. It continues to refuse to provide more information on additional Japanese citizens whom Tokyo officials suspect have been kidnapped in past decades. It still fields a million-strong army that consumes 30 percent of its gross domestic product — by far the highest proportion in the world by this measure — and necessitates that South Korea, as well as the United States, waste resources maintaining deterrence and vigilance along the demilitarized zone. And it is suspected of helping countries such as Libya and Syria with their own weapons of mass destruction programs.

In dealing with such a brutal regime, “no-drama Obama” should stick with his calm way for now, for several reasons:

  • President Barack Obama has an opportunity to see if his new multilateralist style can ease tensions with Pyongyang and open up a more constructive period of diplomacy. The odds are against him, but there’s no reason to give up before he and his team can construct an integrated North Korea policy in consultation with key allies and other countries.
  • American restraint will also deprive North Korean hard-liners of what they probably seek. President Kim Jong Il is probably not healthy, after a stroke or heart attack last summer, and various players within the republic are positioning for advantage in what could soon be a post-Kim North Korea. We don’t want to send a message that we are pushovers, nor do we want to react so strongly that any “moderate” voices within North Korea are unable to make their internal case for testing a new type of relationship with a new American president.
  • Most of all, being calm and cool now sets us up for the longer term. We may well have to form a strong international coalition to react strongly to a more severe North Korean provocation down the line — be it another nuclear weapons test or a border dispute with South Korea or something even worse. Our ability to persuade countries such as China to go along with a more muscular response that squeezes the North Korean economy will depend in part on being able to argue that we attempted a more positive relationship with Pyongyang but were met by a still-clenched fist.