North Korean Missile Test Exposes Limits of US Policy: Failed Policy Tools in Play


2012-12-18 By Richard Weitz

The White House denounced North Korea’s December 12 missile test as a “highly provocative act that threatens regional security.”

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor called the launch “another example of North Korea’s pattern of irresponsible behavior.” He said that the administration “would work in a concerted fashion to send North Korea a clear message that its violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions have consequences.”

Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, later praised the UN Security Council, for producing “one of the swiftest and strongest, if not the swiftest and strongest [critical statement] that this Council has issued. In that, it issued a clear condemnation of this action and it did so right away.”

Thus far, the administration’s response has focused on securing additional UN sanctions and critical statements.

There is little reason to expect tools, which have been employed in the past, will deter further DPRK missile or even nuclear tests.

The administration’s engagement efforts have also failed, with North Korea several times spitting on Obama’s outstretched hand, most recently a few weeks after the United States pledged in late February of this year more than 200,000 tons of food aid, which was followed a few weeks earlier by a DPRK announcement that they planned to launch their April 2012 test.

The test raises other questions about U.S. policy toward the Korean problem.

Notably, the timing of the rocket launch appears to have caught the U.S. government off guard. In what may have been a clever head fake, on December 10 the DPRK announced that technical problems with the rocket would require Pyongyang to extend its possible launch window much later in the month.

U.S. and other analysts believed either that these problems would delay the launch or that the claimed problems were actually a face-saving way for Pyongyang to bow to Beijing’s pressure not to conduct the test.

The launch then occurred while most of the administration’s Asian hands were attending various Christmas parties. It took the NSC four hours to issue its terse statement of disapproval.

The statement itself was surprisingly mild and formulaic, especially when compared with the weeks-long campaign by the president and the other senior policy makers in his administration warning the Syrian government against using chemical weapons. While these weapons can kill perhaps thousands of unprotected civilians, they do not present a major threat to the United States, its allies, or its deployed forces.

In contrast, the DPRK is developing the capacity to launch nuclear weapons against the U.S. homeland, a mutual deterrence relationship that Americans have thus far accepted only in the case of Russia and China. All U.S. administrations have refused to accept a mutual deterrent relationship with a congenitally aggressive and unpredictable DPRK regime.

Furthermore, many U.S. experts worry that that Tehran is watching and weighing how the U.S. administration is responding to the DPRK’s overt challenge when determining its own nuclear policies.

As noted in a previous SLD Piece, I argued that Iran and North Korea engage in a robust exchange of missile and other technology that may have, or soon might, extend into the nuclear weapons realm.

U.S. policy makers must not make such generous concessions to Pyongyang as to encourage Iran and other countries to anticipate similar rewards from Washington if they pursue WMD.

Another consideration affecting U.S. policy toward the DPRK nuclear issue is that American policy makers also do not want U.S. allies in Asia to perceive Washington as neglecting their security interests.

The DPRK’s developing nuclear weapons and improving ballistic missile capacities have already affected East Asian regional security in many dimensions, including by calling into question U.S. security guarantees to Japan and South Korea.

The main problem confronting the United States is that while North Korean leaders believe they need nuclear weapons to deter U.S. threats, the U.S. view is that enduring peace on the Korean peninsula requires that the DPRK to relinquish its nuclear weapons capacity.

Supported by UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, Washington still insists on the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula since a nuclear-armed DPRK threatened U.S. allies, promoted regional instability, and undermined the international treaties and regimes that underpin the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Under its policy of “strategic patience,” the Obama administration has demanded that the DPRK give some concrete indication, before resuming the Six-Party Talks, that the DPRK would make progress toward ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and improving intra-Korean ties. But since Pyongyang has continued its wayward ways, most recently by launching its long-range missile, the United States and its allies have shunned the DPRK diplomatically and punished it with additional unilateral and multilateral sanctions.

“The Obama administration’s approach continues to be unimaginative and moribund,” Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a statement. “We can either take a different approach, or watch as the North Korean threat to the region and the U.S. grows.”

This policy of patiently waiting for verifiable changes in DPRK policies possesses several risks.

Above all, it provides North Koreans with additional breathing room to refine their nuclear and missile programs. It also risks that the DPRK might again launch more ballistic missiles or detonate another nuclear device to confirm and support this development process or out of simple frustration about being ignored.

Critics of the administration’s policy toward the DPRK worry that the United States and other countries have rewarded Pyongyang’s past bad behavior so often that they no longer fear Washington’s response. North Korean negotiators have been selling Americans the same concessions time and again as they continue to develop their nuclear and other potential power.

The strategy of “strategic patience” also risks allowing a minor incident to escalate through the ROK’s “proactive deterrence” policy, which calls for responding immediately to DPRK military provocations.

The South Korean Army has deployed new short-range missiles and other weapons systems in the border area than are capable of responding rapidly against any North Korean infraction. When nervous ROK troops, seeking to implement the rapid response doctrine, shot at a civilian airliner in 2011, they underscored the risks of miscalculation when one or both parties has placed itself on a hair-trigger alert state.

The worst scenario would see the DPRK leadership, thinking that their nuclear and missile arsenals would protect them by deterring potential counterattacks, launching another provocation only to trigger the massive and prompt response posited in the new ROK strategy.

The DPRK might respond by detonating a nuclear device in order to shock the ROK and its foreign allies into de-escalating the crisis. Or it might simply bombard Seoul and its environs with the enormous number of artillery systems that the DPRK has amassed in the border region.