How do you solve a problem like Kim Jong-il?

Military analysis.
April 6 2009 2:03 PM

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Kim Jong-il?

Stop playing his game.

Kim Jong Il posing with staff of the General Satellite Control and Command Centre. Click image to expand.
Kim Jong-il obseves the launching of the experimental communication satellite

What to do with this shrewd lunatic Kim Jong-il? The North Korean dictator test-fired a missile over the weekend—defying the brow-furrowed finger-wagging of the "international community"—only to watch the rocket sputter into the ocean before it could complete its trajectory.

The temptation is either to thwack this pint-size tyrant on the side of his head—impose fierce sanctions, deploy the gunboats, send out some mind-messing agit-prop that undermines his rule—or, better still, to ignore him, to start treating his threats and bluster as the empty antics of a desperate thug.

This was, after all, North Korea's third failed test of a long-range missile—out of three attempts—in the last 11 years. And yet the world continues to speak of its military prowess in the gravest of tones.

The catch, of course, is that the last time one of his missiles went poof—on the Fourth of July, 2006, an event of much fanfare, when the rocket fizzled and crashed a mere 35 seconds after blastoff—Kim Jong-il recaptured the world's attention three months later by successfully testing an atom bomb. As far as nukes go, it produced a teeny explosion—a half-kiloton, much less than the (already less than mighty) 3 or 4 kilotons that his scientists had predicted—but, by any measure, North Korea had to be regarded as a nuclear-armed state. That colors our perceptions, and properly so.

However, it will be years, probably many years, before Kim can translate this status into real military power—that is, before he can miniaturize a bomb to fit inside a missile's nosecone, a much more challenging feat than the one, which he has yet to achieve, of merely getting the missile to fly from launch pad to target.

It's worth looking back at the events surrounding Kim's last missile test, the July 4 fizzle of 2006—as the past weekend's spectacle amounts to an eerie replay.

As happened this time around, the North Korean rocket of three years ago sat on its launch pad for weeks, during which time all the major regional powers—not just the United States, but Russia, Japan, South Korea, and especially China—begged and cajoled Kim Jong-il to call off the test. Like this time, the pressure had no effect. Kim gleefully thumbed his nose at us all.

The most interesting part of the story, though, was what happened afterward: nothing. Neither Kim's defiance nor his technical belly flop made any dent on anyone's subsequent behavior or strategy.

A few months later, after Kim detonated an A-bomb in a test chamber, the powers stepped into action, bringing a resolution of condemnation before the U.N. Security Council, which approved the measure unanimously—but, again, to little effect. The resolution had no enforcement clause; no penalties were imposed.

The strange mix of high drama, tense showdown, then limp backpedaling has been going on for decades, and it stems from two immovable facts—the nature of the North Korean regime and China's vital interest in keeping the regime from imploding.

As Scott Snyder notes in his superb book Negotiating on the Edge, Kim Jong-il—like his father, Kim Il-sung, before him—views his nation as a "guerrilla state" and his position in the world as "a guerrilla fighter who has nothing to lose and yet faces the prospect of losing everything." Both Kims have regarded North Korea as "a shrimp among whales" whose survival is best ensured by weaving a perpetual backdrop of "drama and catastrophe" to distract the whales—the larger powers around them—and play them off one another.

Nukes and missiles are the only bargaining chips that Kim possesses; his brutal regime and self-imposed isolation have kept the country impoverished. However, every time the larger powers bellow about the North Korean threat or seek to impose penalties through harsh U.N. resolutions, they play into his game—they lavish him with the attention that he needs both to negotiate for goodies diplomatically and to justify his totalitarian reign at home.

This is why it's so tempting to ignore Kim's games—but also why it might be dangerous to do so. He requires the "drama and catastrophe"; his regime would probably collapse without them. And so, if the United States and the other major powers paid no attention to, say, his missile test, he would raise the stakes, do something more outrageous, then raise the ante on that as well, until we did pay attention—until we had to.

In this sense, tangling with North Korea is like playing highway chicken with a wild but calculating kid who visibly throws his steering wheel out the window, forcing the other, more responsible driver to veer off the road.

China is the one country that could crack the rod. Nearly all North Korea's trade comes through China, which also supplies Pyongyang with a great deal of aid and investment. Yet Beijing's leaders are so expansive with their largess, and so lax in their discipline, because they know—and Kim knows that they know—that if Kim's regime begins to collapse, tens of millions of North Koreans will rush across the Chinese border, creating a humanitarian crisis beyond Beijing's resources and possibly destabilizing that corner of China as well.

North Korea's antics also serve China's interests in a strategic sense as well. As long as U.S. military forces in East Asia are focused on countering a North Korean threat to South Korea and Japan, they will be less focused on countering Chinese pressure on Taiwan.

This is why, even after Pyongyang exploded an atomic bomb, China took no real action against its ally, apart from voting for the Security Council's (nonbinding) resolution of condemnation. And that incident was cause for much more worry than last weekend's rocket launch (which may or may not have carried a satellite, which was not flung into orbit in any case). Even a few hours after the launch, as President Barack Obama was calling for a Security Council session and harsh penalties, China's spokesmen were downplaying the event as no big deal.

Sanctions or other economic penalties are toothless unless China joins in, and this time, as before, there's no reason to believe it will.

As for military action, the last three presidents—both Bushes and Bill Clinton in between—have weighed the option very seriously. In the 1994 crisis over North Korea's steps toward reprocessing plutonium, Clinton came much closer to mounting an attack than most people realize. However, each time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff's calculations—that we didn't know the location of North Korea's nuclear facilities and that, if Kim retaliated against South Korea or Japan, millions of civilians could die—held force at bay.

It is possible to deal diplomatically with North Korea. Snyder lists the rules in his book. President Clinton's top officials, after a few flustered efforts, figured out how to play the game; as a result, they negotiated the Agreed Framework of 1995, which, for all its limitations, locked up Pyongyang's plutonium for the next decade. Clinton was on the verge of negotiating a ban on missiles when his term ran out. This was the deal that Colin Powell wanted to pick up where Clinton left off—until his boss, George W. Bush, made it clear he wanted to defeat evil, not negotiate with it. As a result, the Agreed Framework unraveled, and North Korea reprocessed the plutonium, tested an A-bomb, and kept developing—and exporting—missiles. When Bush finally let Condoleezza Rice resume talks in the middle of his second term, an accord was easy to reach—but it was also full of holes. And that's the hard spot we're backed up against today.

Whatever President Obama does, he should not go rushing off to the negotiating tables. Despite its failure, the rocket launch did violate a U.N. resolution warning North Korea not to launch any more missiles, and the reaction cannot be a reward. However, Obama should also resist mounting a long and ambitious campaign to stiffen the sanctions already in place—unless he can get the Chinese to agree beforehand that they'll go along. Too many times, U.S. officials have labeled some North Korean action as "unacceptable"—only to accept it in the end, thus making all future warnings still less credible.

The best thing right now is to spend as little time as possible on this subject, then drop it. We have a lot more important things on our plate than North Korea's puny bomb and flaccid missiles. As Daniel Sneider, associate director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, said of the missile launch in a phone conversation today, "This is not the action of a strong state—this is the action of a weak state." Obama should behave accordingly.

So yes, issue a condemnation in the Security Council to show one and all (especially the Japanese, who are sensitive about missiles flying over their territory) that we take this seriously. After that, send a message to North Korea's foreign ministry that we're ready to resume the six-party talks and to throw in a lot of incentives if Pyongyang is ready to change course—but that the next step must be theirs, not ours. It's time to stop playing their game.