Obama shouldn't respond too quickly, or too aggressively, to the North Korean nuclear test.

Military analysis.
May 26 2009 3:06 PM

First, Take a Deep Breath

Obama shouldn't respond too quickly, or too aggressively, to the North Korean nuclear test.

North Korean leader Kim Jong II. Click image to expand
North Korea's Kim Jong-il

So North Korea has tested a nuclear bomb. What should President Barack Obama do about it? Ideally, nothing. A shrug may be the response that Kim Jong-il fears most.

This, after all, was only the second A-bomb that Pyongyang has ever tested. (The first was in October 2006.) And a recent long-range missile test, last April, seems to have been a dud—as were both of the other such tests it's attempted in the past decade. If the big fear is that this loathsome dictatorship might fit a nuclear warhead onto a missile with the range to hit Japan or beyond, the worry seems premature by many years.

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But, politically and strategically, Obama has to do something. First, our leading Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, live within Pyongyang's gun sites, and they view an atomic North Korea with considerable alarm. Second, nuclear wannabes, such as Iran, are watching how we deal with this provocation. To ignore, excuse, or reward it might send an unfortunate signal. Third, Obama's domestic critics—and possibly the president himself—view the explosion as a test of his executive leadership. This doesn't mean he has to respond with bluster, but probably he has to respond.

Finally, the North Koreans might also regard their deed as, at least in part, a test of this new American president. If Obama wants to push or lure them off the nuclear track at some point, he has to devise a shrewd countermove now.

The bad news is that shrewd countermoves are in short supply when it comes to dealing with the Hermit Kingdom.

Military options—as the Joint Chiefs of Staff have made clear to each of the three presidents before Obama—are extremely unappetizing. We don't know where all of North Korea's nuclear facilities are. They have thousands of artillery rockets, some armed with chemical munitions, within a few minutes' flight time from South Korea's capital, Seoul. An American air strike wouldn't destroy all of these sites or rockets, and if Pyongyang retaliated, hundreds of thousands of South Korean citizens could die.

Sanctions and other forms of political or economic pressure can go only so far. North Korea is, by design, the most sealed-off nation on the planet. Limiting exposure to the rest of the world limits vulnerability to its pressures as well. Cutting off food supplies would hurt the North Korean people, but, as a series of natural famines has shown, Kim Jong-il doesn't care about the well-being of his people.

Cutting off trade routes probably would have an impact on the regime and thus on the rulers' behavior. But most trade goes through its neighbor and key ally China. And in past confrontations, China's leaders have refused to apply economic pressure. They fear that destabilizing Kim's regime might spur millions of North Koreans to flee across the Chinese border, creating a refugee crisis beyond Beijing's control. Moreover, the survival of Kim's regime serves their own strategic interests: As long as U.S. military forces in East Asia are focused on protecting South Korea and Japan from Pyongyang, they'll be less focused on protecting Taiwan from Beijing.

At the same time, however, the Chinese have no desire to see North Korea develop an effective nuclear arsenal. Like the Soviet Union during Cold War days, China doesn't want subordinate powers to acquire independent means to make mischief. China also fears that a nuclear-armed North Korea might compel Japan to go nuclear, which would pose a threat to China in the long run. When North Korea set off its first nuclear test, the Chinese were clearly frustrated but didn't extend their harsh words to action. It's conceivable that this second test, especially in the wake of the missile test—both of which violated Security Council resolutions that China endorsed—could alter Chinese calculations. In the past, the Chinese have put their narrow national interests above the interests of regional security and nuclear nonproliferation. Maybe this latest move will tip the scale in the opposite direction.