Washington’s North Korea strategy is failing

Michael Mazza American Enterprise Institute
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Speaking in 2009 about America’s approach to North Korea, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously remarked, “I’m tired of buying the same horse twice.” President Obama just repurchased that horse — and it’s a scrub.

North Korea’s uncontested rocket launch marks a gross failure of Washington’s North Korea policy. That the launch was ultimately a failure itself is no consolation. Pyongyang may have collected valuable data (though fortunately not much given the length of the flight), which it will use to further its missile technology. More importantly, Kim Jong-un learned that in the face of North Korean provocations, the United States remains unwilling to use force, one of the very few tools that the North respects.

Failing to take advantage of a potential opportunity, U.S. forces did not shoot down the missile, an act which would have signaled American resolve both to North Korea and U.S. allies alike and would have finally changed the rules of the game in America’s favor. (If it is the case that the military lacked the wherewithal to intercept the rocket, the administration has only itself to blame, having quashed promising missile defense programs like the airborne laser several years ago). Nor do we know if any attempt was made to use cyber-sabotage to prevent the launch or if the administration even considered the admittedly provocative act of striking the rocket on the launch pad, as Ashton Carter and former defense secretary William Perry recommended doing in 2006.

And so Kim Jong-un has learned the unfortunate lesson that, much like his father, he can get away with just about anything — that is, as long as he doesn’t mind some harsh words from the American president and a likely slap on the wrist from the United Nations Security Council, which will reportedly issue a statement condemning the launch today.

Perhaps the administration’s biggest mistake here was granting Kim the opportunity to play Washington for a fool. It was no secret that this month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder. Nor was it any secret that Kim Jong-il had been promising for years that North Korea would become a “great, prosperous and powerful country” in 2012. North Korea observers have long expected missile launches or a nuclear test to commemorate the event this spring; indeed, The New York Times reported that administration officials were aware of North Korean plans to launch a satellite prior to February’s Leap Day agreement.

Yet for reasons that have yet to be made clear, the Obama administration had enough “confidence in their [North Korea’s] good faith,” as State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland put it, to stick to an agreement — a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in return for “nutritional assistance” — that would have prevented Kim Jong-un from using the only tools at his disposal to demonstrate that he was keeping his father’s promise. But when wishful thinking begins driving foreign policy, things are bound to go wrong. The American president should never put himself in position to have a foreign leader spit in his eye, which is precisely what Kim has done. America’s allies and its adversaries (Iran, anyone?) must be questioning U.S. seriousness of purpose.

Nor should the administration’s explanation for the aforementioned deal be taken at face value. According to The Washington Post, “administration officials” contend that “their deal with North Korea was a necessary, deliberate test to probe how serious North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Eun, is about reaching a détente with Washington and resuming talks on denuclearization.” But this narrative ignores the fact that the White House was willing to go forward with a similar agreement back in December prior to Kim Jong-il’s death. The White House, apparently, was set to abandon its more promising policy of “strategic patience” — maintaining pressure and refusing talks until Pyongyang began adhering to earlier commitments — months ago. All Kim Jong-un had to do was prove that he was no more a wild card than his father had been.

All of this suggests that the administration has lost its way on North Korea policy. Perhaps the White House was eager for a disarmament win in order to quiet critics of its “global zero” vision ahead of last month’s Nuclear Security Summit. Perhaps Pyongyang’s pursuit of informal talks with the United States in the second half of 2011 somehow convinced the State Department of the North’s sincerity in efforts to resolve the nearly decade-long nuclear crisis. Perhaps the administration perceived signs that Kim Jong-un really is a horse of a different color.

Whatever caused this shift to a less resolute — one might say “wishy-washy” — approach to North Korea, Kim Jong-un has certainly set the chessboard in his favor. He has confirmed that he maintains the freedom of action his father long exercised. That his rocket launch was unopposed will give him confidence to go forward with a nuclear test in the coming weeks or months; the coming U.N. condemnation of his launch, moreover, will provide a pretext — as it did in 2006 and 2009 — to go ahead with that test. Pyongyang’s successful playing of the Americans may cement Kim’s new place atop the leadership hierarchy.

North Korea has a clearly demonstrated pattern of behavior, one that it repeats with abandon because Pyongyang perceives it to be successful. Unless the United States and its allies force a change in that pattern by modifying their own responses, they can expect more of the same — not just missile and nuclear tests, but also reiterations of the unprovoked acts of war that marked 2010 — in the years ahead.

Michael Mazza is a research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.