Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A bomb too far

North Korea's apparently successful detonation of a nuclear device presents a significant challenge to the still-new Obama administration. As with previous administrations, President Obama has few good options. Still, the North Korean kleptocracy may soon discover that it has finally over-played its hand.

Kim Jung Il and his cronies have shown that they are incapable of running a modern economy. Previous brinkmanship has brought some assistance, but the North Korean regime has not used that assistance to address any of the underlying vulnerabilities in the economy. If anything, the regime may be more vulnerable now to sanctions than it has been before.

President Obama will have one additional partner for a get-tough approach that President Bush did not have--South Korea. During the Bush administration, the South Korean government pushed for conciliation over confrontation. Now, however, the South Korean government is taking a tougher stand. Already, and at some risk to itself, South Korea has announced that it is joining the Proliferation Security Initiative and will support efforts to interdict nuclear materials coming out of North Korea.

From the Washington Post,
South Korea said Tuesday that it would join a U.S.-led effort to intercept ships from countries like North Korea that are suspected of exporting missiles and weapons of mass destruction -- a step it had been reluctant to take in the past for fear of provoking its isolated neighbor into additional retaliation. North Korea has repeatedly said it would regard the South's participation in the security effort as a "declaration of war."
For the time being, North Korea's main patron--China--as well as Russia have joined in the condemnation and seem to be discussing not whether but how to punish the regime.

Besides interdicting ships, the U.S. also has other levers including renewing financial sanctions and reducing food and energy assistance.

The important thing at this point, which the Obama administration seems to grasp, is a measured, calm, and unified response. The nuclear genie was already out of the bottle on the Korean peninsula. The current test does not change that unfortunate reality.

While Kim Jung Il's threats have to be taken seriously, he has resorted to brinksmanship too many times and reneged on too many agreements to be viewed as a credible partner. He will be hard-pressed to get the same kinds of rewards from this stunt that he has gotten from previous behavior. Cooperation with other countries in Asia will be key to denying Kim Jung Il those rewards.

President Obama may not be able to remove nuclear weapons from North Korea; however, he can make sure that the North Koreans do not benefit from their threatening behavior.