Can Obama Stop North Korea?

Washington Matters

Can Obama Stop North Korea?

You have to hand it to Kim Jong-il. His stroke last August may have slowed him down for a while, but he's back, and his sense of timing is as impeccable as ever. He deliberately held North Korea's latest nuclear test on Memorial Day for the same reason he test fired its Taepodong-2 ballistic missile on July 4, 2006 -- namely, to stick a finger in America's eye.

There's no chance Obama will try to lure the North Koreans back to the negotiating table with fresh incentives. Ambassador Jeffrey Bader, senior director for Asia on the National Security Council, is pretty blunt about it. Noting there have already been two deals with North Korea to shut down its nuclear program, first under President Clinton and then under President Bush, he says the U.S. won't play the sucker a third time.

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In any event, it's unlikely this latest test was an extortion attempt by Kim. Far more plausible is that it was cooked up for domestic consumption to bolster his regime. Pursuing nuclear weapons has several advantages: It represents a visible technological accomplishment, provokes international condemnation, which Kim can use to stir up nationalist sentiment, and it wins the support of hardliners in the Korean People's Army. Kim wants his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to succeed him, but there are signs that the Army is lukewarm on that idea.

If no new carrots are in the offing, Obama has precious few sticks to wield either. As always, Obama's preference will be for multilateral action. In the next few days, the United Nations Security Council will vote to impose tougher sanctions. Beijing probably won't support sanctions, but it won't exercise its veto either. This is the second time the North has repaid its erstwhile patron by exploding a nuclear device, causing China to lose face.


Whether such sanctions will have much effect is a tougher question. The Security Council laid down fairly strict penalties after North Korea's October 2006 nuclear test -- then too with the acquiescence of Beijing -- but China declined to enforce them rigorously. As much as China worries about a nuclear North Korea, it is more worried about Kim's government collapsing if squeezed too hard. That would prompt a flood of starving Korean refugees into China's northeastern provinces. President Hu Jintao will probably balk at imposing real pain on the Kim regime, such as cutting off fuel oil supplies.

South Korea is another story. One of the dark ironies of Monday's nuclear test was that it came just two days after the suicide of former president Roh Moo-hyun. Roh went farther than any other leader in South Korea's history to promote better relations with the North, often at the expense of Seoul's traditional alliance with Washington. His successor, Lee Myung-bak, has embraced a much tougher line and is far more likely to apply sanctions. An early indication of this is Seoul's decision to sign onto a U.S.-led effort to halt international shipments of weapons of mass destruction. But Lee's cooperation will come with a price: the U.S. will have to look the other way when Seoul tests its own satellite in July, violating the same missile test ban that Pyongyang did with its satellite launch in April.

Obama's options for pressuring North Korea unilaterally also are limited. One would be to tighten sanctions laid down by Bush's Treasury Department in response to the regime's money laundering through overseas accounts. The measures, which barred Pyongyang's access to international financial markets, ultimately forced it back to the six-party talks after a long absence, at which point they were relaxed.

Another possibility would be to put Pyongyang back on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. This would reinforce North Korea's position as a pariah state, making it that much more difficult for the country to break out of its political isolation. The move would also shore up the U.S.-Japanese alliance. Tokyo was angered by the Bush administration's decision to remove North Korea's terrorist sponsorship because it left unresolved the fate of dozens of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. Obama seems reluctant to take this approach, perhaps in part because it has been strongly championed by Bush UN Ambassador John Bolton.


In the end, it's increasingly implausible that North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons voluntarily. The U.S. could conceivably learn to live with a nuclear North Korea, provided the handful of bombs it possesses stay put. The trouble is that the North has a history of selling or bartering weapons technology, including nuclear technology. It also seems determined to produce a nuclear warhead that it can mount on a missile by 2012, in time for the late Kim Il-sung's centennial. If Pyongyang gets close, Obama will have to revisit the option of using force to stop them from doing so. The alternative would be the outbreak of a nuclear arms race in northeast Asia -- involving Japan and South Korea, not to mention China -- and the possibility of a far larger conflagration down the road.