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How to Defuse the North Korean Threat

By the Editors
January 29, 2013 6:30 PM EST
North Korea
North Korea

With his bombastic threat of “high- profile” retaliation against the U.S. (translation: more tests of nuclear bombs and missiles), North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seems determined to tantrum his way to the top of President Barack Obama’s second-term foreign-policy agenda.

As the mythical orientalism goes, in crisis there is opportunity. North Korea’s bellicose response to tighter United Nations sanctions has raised tensions with its closest ally, China. That, along with the confluence of several political transitions, offers a chance to contain and even reduce the dangers posed by one of the world’s most opaque and oppressive regimes.

The U.S., which is technically still at war with North Korea, has predicated peace talks on the North’s willingness to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Six-nation talks -- involving the North, the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea -- to ease tensions haven’t been held since December 2008. In its most recent statement, the North said it will only give up its nukes when everyone else gives up theirs, and that the six-party talks and a previous agreement of principles with the U.S. are null and void.

That’s the bad news.

A sliver of hope comes from China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner and supplier of aid. Not only does China now support tighter sanctions -- albeit not as tight as the U.S. wanted -- but Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Communist Party, has also called the North’s nuclear program “intolerable.” The newly installed Xi has little interest in another regional dust-up, especially given China’s territorial spat with Japan and the need to make nice with a re-elected Obama administration.

As a recent report by Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes, there is ample evidence of friction between China and North Korea. With North Korea lurching from crisis to crisis, Chinese policy makers are finding it harder to balance their interests: stability on the peninsula, influence over North Korea, better ties with the U.S. and South Korea, and a more positive international image.

Unfortunately, China’s stiff words -- which included a hint of a reduction in aid -- will probably not dissuade the North from holding another nuclear test. For North Korea, a nuclear deterrent is a cheaper and more effective means of ensuring regime survival than a million or so troops armed with mostly obsolescent technology.

So when North Korea goes ahead with its test, which looks imminent, the Obama administration should push the Chinese hard for a coordinated response. If the Chinese balk, the U.S. will be justified in cooperating more closely with Japan and South Korea on missile defense, maritime patrols, counterproliferation initiatives and other strategic efforts that China won’t like. The U.S. also has to build relations with South Korea’s incoming president, Park Geun Hye, who wisely wants to move away from the reflexively hardline stance of her predecessor. The U.S. would be smart to take up Park’s suggestion of a China-U.S.-South Korea dialogue.

As we have argued, better implementation of the existing narrow sanctions would also help constrain the North; the just- approved UN resolution, for example, will make it easier to conduct inspections of North Korean-flagged ships. That could curtail its cooperation with Iran. Russia could help by providing more insight into how much assistance its experts in the 1990s gave North Korea’s missile program, whose homegrown progress is a matter of debate.

The challenge will be to find ways to expose and constrain North Korean behavior, including its deplorable human-rights record, without deepening the isolation and privation of its people. What North Korea needs is more visits by the likes of Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google Inc. It needs more economic and cultural engagement with the rest of the world. That may be hard to do when the air is filled with acrid belligerence. But whoever said that healing the last wound of the Cold War was going to be easy?

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.

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