Dispatch April 2009

Learning to Live with Kim Jong Il

North Korea plans to launch a missile test this week. Here's why we shouldn't just shoot the sucker down.
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What if North Korea launched a missile test—excuse me, a “satellite”—and nobody cared? To its credit, the Obama administration has left it to the Japanese to play Chicken Little in Kim Jong Il’s latest geo-drama. President Obama has said only that “we will work with all interested partners in the international community to take appropriate steps” if North Korea went through with the launch.

From the U.S. point of view, the best outcome would be if the Taepodong-2 missile either blew up on the launch pad or fizzled shortly after liftoff (that’s what happened to the last Taepodong-2 launch in July 2006).  But let’s say the test is a “success.” How should the U.S. respond? By not giving North Korean hardliners the excuse they seek to abandon the six-party talks that are intended to promote the normalization of relations on the Korean peninsula and the dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

The smart response is to let the United Nations handle this—not because a U.N. Security Council resolution will stop the North Koreans from doing what they want, but because it will embarrass them by holding their behavior up for global scrutiny. With deft handling, the United States could also put the Chinese and the Russians in the uncomfortable position of having to publicly choose whether to stand behind Kim Jong Il or support earlier Security Council resolutions: In October 2006, following North Korea’s test of a nuclear weapon, the Security Council passed a resolution imposing sanctions and calling on Pyongyang to, among other things, “suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme.”

North Korea claims that it is only launching a peaceful satellite, and the images of the missile on the launch pad does show a capsule on top that could be used for that purpose. But the technology used to launch missiles and satellites is all but identical. Moreover, the DPRK has no serious satellite program: One of the last “satellites” that they claim to have launched—powered by a Taepodong-1 missile—was, according to the North Korean press agency, “transmitting the melody of the immortal revolutionary hymns ‘Song of General Kim Il Sung’ and ‘Song of General Kim Jong Il’”; U.S. Space Command found no trace of the satellite, and assiduous radio operators, perhaps mercifully, heard no such broadcasts.

Why not just shoot the sucker down, as 16 Republican congressmen just suggested? Well, for starters, because we probably can’t. As Philip Coyle of the Center for Defense Information points out, “we really don’t have any capability to shoot down the missile in its boost phase.” The anti-missile technology on board the ships that the U.S. has stationed off the coast is too slow, and is best suited to defending the ships themselves. (It would be a particular shame if the USS John S. McCain, one of the guided missile destroyers on station, were to miss its target.) Even Japanese officials, who have vowed to shoot down any missile, or missile parts, over their territory, have doubts about their ability to do so—an assessment that Coyle echoes. And according to David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists, even if we tried to shoot down the missile with the multi-billion dollar missile defense system deployed in Alaska, “nobody really knows if that would work. The system has no demonstrated capability against a launch that hasn’t been highly scripted.”

Even if we could blow the so-called satellite out of the sky, the collateral damage would outweigh any benefits. Not only would Pyongyang scupper the six-party talks, but it would likely instigate all sorts of other mischief, everything from imposing long sentences on two American reporters it has in custody to cranking up its counterfeiting of U.S. currency and generally selling more of the wrong things to the wrong people (like nuclear technology to Syria).

This missile test is a classic example of the kind of brinksmanship at which the North Koreans excel. But brinksmanship is not as easy for a democracy, especially one that has to consult with other democracies—a lesson that the Bush administration learned in its misguided and unsuccessful effort to get tough with the North Koreans. The only thing Kim Jong Il cares about is his regime’s survival. (Former U.S. diplomat Richard Bush provides a brilliant guided tour of Dear Leader’s amygdala here.) We have to worry about our allies and our broader interests, which puts us at an inherent disadvantage in any kind of a negotiation.

Under those circumstances, the best strategy is to continue talking with North Korea while making sure that it bears the onus for its bad behavior. In the case of this missile test, that means pushing for a resolution at the United Nations, but forsaking stiffer sanctions for the benefit of a unified diplomatic front. More broadly, though, this strategy calls for a more realistic appraisal of North Korean behavior. The current regime may suspend, but is unlikely ever to give up, its nuclear arsenal and ballistic missile technology. It will also strive to turn every incentive we offer against us – kicking U.S. humanitarian aid out of the country in the midst of a food shortage, clamping down on South Korea’s efforts to promote joint economic development projects. That calls for a harder calculus, like not offering such assistance in the first place if it’s simply going to be turned into the equivalent of a diplomatic hostage. (“Sure, we’ll let you resume feeding our people, if you make the following concessions.”) Harsh? Yup. But I’d rather live in a world with fewer North Koreans than fewer Californians.

James Gibney is a deputy managing editor of The Atlantic.
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James Gibney is a features editor at The Atlantic. He was a political officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, where he wrote speeches for Warren Christopher, Anthony Lake, and Bill Clinton.

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