The North Korea Problem

By Alan Stewart Carl | Related entries in Foreign Policy, North Korea


Fred Kaplan has an excellent article in Slate detailing why North Korea is so hard to deal with and how Obama should proceed after the recent missile launch.

Over the last few decades, our policies towards North Korea have seemed to be all talk and no action. We’ve all but wagged our finger off. Kaplan explains why:

The strange mix of high drama, tense showdown, then limp backpedaling has been going on for decades, and it stems from two immovable facts—the nature of the North Korean regime and China’s vital interest in keeping the regime from imploding.

The nature of North Korea’s regime is to act like a guerilla state because it knows the only way to stay relevant is to irritate the major powers. As for China, they hold most of the international bargaining chips because they supply North Korea with most of its aid and trade. But China is very reluctant to take real action against their neighbor because they know the failure of Kim Jong-il’s regime would lead to millions of North Koreans rushing across the border into China, creating a humanitarian crisis Beijing desperately wants to avoid.

So, if North Korea is hell-bent on causing trouble and China won’t use the only bargaining chips the international community has, what can the Obama administration do?

Whatever President Obama does, he should not go rushing off to the negotiating tables. Despite its failure, the rocket launch did violate a U.N. resolution warning North Korea not to launch any more missiles, and the reaction cannot be a reward. However, Obama should also resist mounting a long and ambitious campaign to stiffen the sanctions already in place—unless he can get the Chinese to agree beforehand that they’ll go along. Too many times, U.S. officials have labeled some North Korean action as “unacceptable”—only to accept it in the end, thus making all future warnings still less credible.

The best thing right now is to spend as little time as possible on this subject, then drop it. We have a lot more important things on our plate than North Korea’s puny bomb and flaccid missiles. As Daniel Sneider, associate director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, said of the missile launch in a phone conversation today, “This is not the action of a strong state—this is the action of a weak state.” Obama should behave accordingly.

I think they used to call that strategy “containment.”

While liberals tend to promote the healing power of “talks” and the recent generation of conservatives have promoted the decisive power of “action,” there’s something to be said for just keeping the situation stable. North Korea is hardly the world’s greatest threat. There’s little use in treating them as such.

This entry was posted on Monday, April 6th, 2009 and is filed under Foreign Policy, North Korea. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “The North Korea Problem”

  1. JMG Says:


    I see Mr. Kaplan’s point, and your concurrence, in simply not engaging with North Korea. But much of North Korea’s missile program is a result of just such a policy. Like Muammar Quaddafi, Kim Jong-il is trying to maintain some type of (very crazy) national legitimacy by being belligerent. Also like the Libyan case, If we can show Mr. Jong-il that his hold onto power is better served by global engagement rather than radicalism, we can get some real gains in the country, at a much lower cost and with a much shorter time frame than simply waiting.

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