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WASHINGTON — North Korea’s motives for its April 5 rocket launch are open to speculation: a demonstration of its ability to reach out and touch the United States; test-marketing to Iranians who are reported to have observed the launch; a “remember me” welcome to the new Obama administration; or some combination of all of the above. Whatever the motive, it is important to set the rocket test in a broader North Korean political context — the process of political succession that is now under way in Pyongyang.

The rocket test speaks to the continuing political clout of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and strengthens his hand in ordering succession. It is in this context that the issue of denuclearization should be viewed. While the denuclearization of North Korea remains the raison d’etre of the six-party talks, realizing that objective will almost certainly have to await the arrival of Kim’s successor. With succession looming, for Kim to trade his nuclear arsenal for diplomatic promises of good will would demonstrate a political naivete that would significantly weaken his hand in ordering succession.

In this context, the policy question is how to respond, to the rocket test and to threats to the six-party talks. The Goldilocks prescription, “not too cold; not too hot; just right” would stand U.S. and allied diplomacy in good order.

Going to the United Nations Security Council is a good first step in an effort to mobilize international opinion and concern, but failure to secure a resolution imposing sanctions highlights the continuing differences among the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. As is the case in the six-party talks, both Russia and China, while sharing the ultimate objective of denuclearization, place a higher priority on stability in North Korea at this time.

Underscoring this reality, China, despite the adoption of UNSC resolution 1718, which imposed sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear test of October 2006, has honored its commitment more in the breach than in the observance — last year China’s trade with North Korea grew 41 percent over 2007.

The U.S. also shares an interest in an orderly succession in North Korea. Regime failure and attendant instability could open the door to worst case security scenarios — loss of central control over weapons of mass destruction — and increase the risk of proliferation from the Korean Peninsula, which has been recognized as the greatest threat posed by North Korea to U.S. national security interests.

The rocket test, however, provides an opportunity to intensify trilateral policy coordination among Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. Securing this cooperation is critical as the Obama administration begins to address the multiple contingencies that could be triggered by a failed succession in Pyongyang. For several years, policymakers in all three capitals have recognized the need to deal with a wide range of contingencies, including the breakdown of internal order; refugees; dealing with/disarming the North Korean Army; and the securing of WMD. Yet, a whole of government coordinated approach remains sadly lacking. U.S. and South Korean military plans have been updated but exist in a political and diplomatic vacuum.

With our allies, the time to begin comprehensive planning is now. Doing so may engage China in the discussion. Shortly after North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test, Chinese officials quietly probed U.S. officials for their views as to how the U.S. might respond, “if in a crisis in North Korea,” China should see it necessary “to cross the border” to deal with refugees and to secure WMD. Recently, when the issue of such contingency planning has been raised, Chinese officials have taken the position that such discussions are “premature.”

At the same time, the administration should publicly make clear its commitment to extended deterrence to both Seoul and Tokyo. Confidence in the U.S. commitment is central to managing the evolution of the security environment in Northeast Asia.

As for the six-party talks, it is conceivable that the rocket test was aimed at short-circuiting the current diplomatic framework and engaging the U.S. in a direct bilateral negotiation. It would be a mistake for the administration to fall for this bait and switch ploy — North Korea’s rocket arsenal threatens not only the United States, but Japan, South Korea, China and Russia as well; they need to be in on any talks.

But more to the point, the administration should not lose sight of the ultimate objective of the six-party talks — the denuclearization of North Korea. Neither should it engage in a time-consuming search for new initiatives, new sweeteners, to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. The effort would simply be a waste of time. Pyongyang knows full well what’s on the rewards menu, and its actions have made clear that, at present, it has other preferences. Given the succession dynamic this is understandable.

Our approach should be that the six-party talks will continue, among at least five of the parties, and that the door to the room will remain open for Pyongyang to rejoin the talks when it is ready to do so. In effect, we are playing for time, for a stable succession in the hope that a new leader in Pyongyang may have a different understanding of North Korea’s security and prosperity.

Does this mean living with a nuclear North Korea? The answer is yes. But living with it is not the same as accepting it. The goal of our diplomacy remains denuclearization; this will take time, while our security strategy must deal with the world as it is. Our commitment to extended deterrence is critical in supporting both our diplomacy, security strategy, and our allies.

James J. Przystup is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. This article appeared in PacNet Newsletter.

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