The United Nations Security Council is debating a major provocation from North Korea once again. The nation’s nuclear test on Sunday brought another round of opprobrium from world powers, and now the council is trying to agree on wording of a new condemnatory resolution.
Doesn’t all of this sound familiar? Just after the world learned of the test, anyone who follows North Korea could have predicted exactly what would happen next. China, most concerned about destabilizing North Korea, prompting millions of refugees to flood across the border, would resist strong sanctions. Russia, primarily motivated by a need to be contrary, would reflexively reject any resolution written by the West.
Once again the Security Council will issue a lame resolution that accomplishes little. On Monday, Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary General, urged Pyongyang to “refrain from taking any further measures which will deteriorate the situation, which will create tensions in the region.” North Korea responded by test firing more missiles on Tuesday.
So what’s to be done? Actually, the most likely answer for now is nothing.
When dealing with North Korea, “it’s impossible to get results” on denuclearization, said Michael Green, the White House’s North Korea specialist during the Bush administration. “But we can try to contain the problem and lay the groundwork for some future administration in Pyongyang.” It’s hard to argue with Green. Look back 20 years. Everything has been tried. Nothing has worked. President Bill Clinton eased economic sanctions on Pyongyang, hoping that would persuade North Korea to open up. It didn’t. The ideologues in the Bush Administration pushed the opposite approach: If you wholly isolate North Korea, the regime will collapse. Once again, it didn’t.
All along, North Korea has blustered and threatened. Week after week, the nation threw up one challenge or accusation after another, all designed to infuriate the West. One day it threatened war with the South, the next it arrested two American journalists and charged them with espionage. Last month it launched a ballistic missile, bringing another ritualistic round of protests. Then came Sunday’s nuclear test, apparently larger and more successful than the one tested in 2006. And off we go again.
No one in the West feels directly threatened by North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The same cannot be said for Japan and South Korea. But Kim Jung-il, the North Korean president, knows full well a nuclear attack, anywhere, will lead to a counter-attack that would annihilate his nation. But nuclear proliferation remains a serious concern. After all, North Korea helped Syria create a nuclear program of some sort, until Israel bombed the site.
Until now, Green said, the Obama administration has simply wanted “to park this somewhere.” After the missile launch last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said simply: Washington will not be “blackmailed by North Korea.” Her spokesman, Robert Wood, called relations with North Korea “static. There hasn’t been any movement. You know, we aren’t seeing progress here.”
We also didn’t see the United States making much of an effort. Clinton appointed a part-time special envoy to the region, Stephen Bosworth, an academic who said he had no plans to give up his day job and would work on the North Korea problem only a few days a month. What’s more, Clinton appointed someone else, a senior foreign service officer, to be the U.S. representative to the six-party disarmament talks, if they are ever to resume. How useful can Bosworth be when the North Koreans know they will be facing someone else over the negotiating table?
But even that is academic. This week, the United States, Japan and South Korea are talking about resuming the six-nation talks. But North Korea has already said, “there is no need to hold six-party talks anymore.” Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, visited Pyongyang a month ago, hoping to persuade the North Koreans to resume negotiations. But after he returned home he seemed resigned. “We don’t foresee any breakthroughs,” he said.
The only hope: Kim Jung-il is ill; he has never fully recovered from a stroke last August. Succession is the subject of heated debate among international observers — and within limits, inside North Korea as well. The leading candidate is his youngest son, Kim Jung-un, who is believed to be in his mid 20s.
Trying to discern political moves in Pyongyang is less reliable than reading tea leaves. But it is possible Kim Jung-un will be more reasonable than his father. Perhaps he holds the ambition to save the North Korean people, to bring them into the modern age. Maybe.