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The Sixty Years War

Advance copy from the December 6, 2010, issue.

8:54 PM, Nov 24, 2010 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Yet the nuances of the Obama administration’s position have little to do with the severity of punishment and everything to do with the speed of capitulation. Almost as quickly as the Obama administration expressed its determination not to reward “bad behavior,” the White House announced its intention to do just that. That same day, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, said the administration would “continue our coordination of moves designed to lead eventually to the resumption of the six-party talks.” Perhaps anticipating questions about the wisdom of seeking new agreements on nuclear disarmament with a regime that has violated every other such agreement, Bosworth added: “We are very concerned as to the sincerity of the DPRK’s approach to this.”

But not concerned enough to change course. On the evening of November 23, with fires still burning on Yeonpyeong, a statement on the website of the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that the United States had agreed to seek an immediate resumption of the six-party talks. Bosworth, addressing reporters in Beijing after meeting his Chinese counterparts, said: “We agreed on the essential need for us to continue coordination and consultation on this issue, the uranium enrichment program, and of course on the subject of how .   .   . to bring about a resumption of the Six Party process.”

And so the cycle begins anew. Kim Jong Il feels neglected. He does something provocative. America and her allies offer statements of concern. Negotiations resume. The U.S. side offers generous concessions while threatening to tighten sanctions. North Korea makes promises it does not intend to keep. American diplomats celebrate their “achievement.” And, after a period of relative quiet, Kim Jong Il begins to feel neglected again and does something else provocative.

For much of the foreign policy establishment, the familiarity of this cycle provides comfort. When North Korea declares itself a nuclear power, or tests a crude nuclear weapon, or launches missiles into the Sea of Japan, or blows up a South Korean ship, or reveals to an American scientist a state-of-the-art centrifuge operation—the response is the same. It’s just Kim Jong Il being Kim Jong Il, people say.

But this is false comfort. Nineteen out of twenty times, Kim’s actions can be explained as diplomatic gamesmanship. But the consequences of being wrong that one time—the consequences of misjudging a belligerent and dying dictator with nukes—are grave.

It is up to the White House to break the cycle of futility. The Obama administration’s cool attitude toward North Korea during its first 20 months in office was a welcome change from the Bush administration’s overeager engagement. Getting serious about North Korea, however, requires dispensing with two comforting but inaccurate assumptions that have guided the diplomacy of administrations from both political parties for nearly two decades. The first is the notion that Kim Jong Il can be talked out of pursuing nuclear weapons. The second is that China and the United States share fundamental security interests in disarming North Korea.

For years, U.S. policy on North Korea has been outsourced to China. Successive presidents have asked that Beijing use its muscle to control its combative ally. It hasn’t worked, because the Chinese believe that the status quo is preferable to escalation. The Obama administration needs to flip that equation by making the status quo less acceptable. Rather than asking China politely to do our diplomatic spadework, why not use our diplomatic and economic leverage over China to demonstrate that there are consequences for Beijing’s recalcitrance?

In the short term, we can reimpose the tough sanctions that were unwisely lifted by President Bush in the summer of 2008, and immediately return North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terror. The administration could also urge South Korea to end its participation in the Kaesong Industrial Complex—a zone of joint economic cooperation with North Korea in which South Korean companies provide capital and North Korea provides labor. Beyond that, America can aggressively seek to interdict North Korean ships suspected of carrying illicit materials, and increase the number of regular, high-profile joint naval exercises we conduct with South Korea.

No doubt, it will be tempting for President Obama to take the easier path—to pursue meaningless nonproliferation agreements, to offer platitudes about a nuclear-free world, to restart the six-party talks and otherwise seek dialogue about disarmament with regimes committed to nuclear weapons. But as French president Nicolas Sarkozy reminded Obama at the U.N. Security Council last year:

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