What To Do About that North Korean Missile Launch

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 11:50 AM EDT

North Korea wants some attention. So on Sunday it launched a missile that failed to place a satellite in orbit but did travel about 2000 miles, twice as far as previous Korean missiles. President Barack Obama decried this "provocative act." At the United Nations, members of the Security Council met but could not put together a response. So what should be done? New America Foundation think-tanker Steve Clemons has some solid thoughts:

Barack Obama in a well-crafted speech in Prague calling for a return to serious work on constraining the spread of weapons of mass destruction has ratcheted up the decibel level of his protest of the North Korea launch -- saying that their must be consequences.

The problem is that China and Russia, which actually deployed warships and fighters to the region of the launch, believe that the world must not overreact to North Korea's provocation. These two countries have thus far blocked the issuance of any statement from the United Nations Security Council, which met last evening (Sunday) for an emergency session.

North Korea seems to be demanding that it not fall too far down the Obama priority list -- and it has engineered one of the first of many probable global crises designed to test the resolve and strategic course of the Obama administration....

North Korea is already the target of some of the world's most stringent sanctions. And maintaining them -- and even adding some categories of sanctions -- does send a signal, but it is a soft one that the North Koreans may not care about or respect.

If this provocation was designed primarily "to get attention," then the Obama administration should be asking what can be done to give North Korea "more" attention. Attention itself is not a strategic commodity -- or something that a great nation should withhold if there is a chance of securing strategically significant successes over the ability of North Korea to further enhance its nuclear weapon systems capacity.

Giving North Korea more attention will be pilloried as appeasement by voices such as John Bolton and Frank Gaffney who think that there is little else but expedited regime change and military collision that will change North Korea's course.

But what I have learned watching North Korea's engagement with the US over the years is that North Korea does not move behaviorally in straight lines. But after all is said and done, when one looks back, one sees that North Korea is moving generally in a direction that the West may eventually be able to accept.

Clemons suggests that Obama not "put himself into a box" by talking too tough about this particular provocation. He advises Obama to throw some "attention" at North Korea, while keeping the ongoing negotiations (involving China and Russia) alive and while craftily devising ways to embolden and strengthen those interests within North Korea--be they robber barons or so-called progressives who want better relations (or some relations with the outside world)--that might possibly be at odds with Kim Jong Il's regime.

Clemons, a realist-minded expert on Asia, adds:

Bluster [from the United States and other nations] will not work and is not respected. Force actually is respected by the North Koreans but can easily escalate beyond control.

North Korea is not monolithic. It would be prudent to try to generate some leverage on the competing factions around Kim Jong Il.

But hitting North Korea hard now may undermine any chance of teasing out these factions and of generating other more promising scenarios.

In politics, it certainly is difficult to respond to a potential threat (even an exaggerated one) by saying, "We're going to tease out a more promising scenario." And in this instance, neocons and other hawks will be eager to deride and attack any approach that is not a full-throated roar of aggression. For his part, Obama will have to be careful about the rhetoric he uses--so as to not decrease his own options and undermine a policy that might have to depend more on nuance than swagger. That certainly is easier said than done.