Why the United States Should Ignore North Korea’s Li’l Kim

Military analysis.
April 19 2012 5:48 PM

Let’s Ignore North Korea

Pyongyang’s threats and bluster are a cry for attention. Don’t give it to them.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un salutes as he watches a military parade to mark 100 years since the birth of the country's founder and his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un salutes as he watches a military parade two days after a failed rocket launch

Photo byEd Jones/AFP/Getty Images

The North Koreans can be such a pain, so wearying, you wish that you could just ignore them. So let’s do that. Let’s ignore them. For the moment, it might be, strategically, the best thing we can do.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Their latest escapade, which some analysts have since hyped as a threat and harbinger of crisis, was the attempt on April 13 to launch a missile into space. (Pyongyang’s foreign ministry insisted that the payload was merely a peaceful satellite, but this was a ruse and, in any case, irrelevant: A rocket that can spin a satellite into orbit can also release a nuclear warhead.)

The launch, of course, was a dreadful, stupid thing. On Feb. 29, the Obama administration had signed an accord with the North Koreans, agreeing to provide them with 240,000 tons of food aid over the next year if they suspended all missile and nuclear tests—and here they were, violating the deal just six weeks later, which suggested that they’d been planning the launch while signing on the dotted line.

Advertisement

But the headline is this: The missile sputtered and shattered into a million pieces a few seconds after blast off—the same ending that’s marked all their long-range missile tests.

In response, Obama cut off the food aid and pushed a resolution through the U.N. Security Council denouncing the launch as a “serious violation” of international law. That was the proper response (though it was a tactical mistake for Obama to link food aid with an arms accord in the first place—food should be given as humanitarian assistance, not foisted as a political bargaining chip; a link to energy supplies would have been more fitting).

Now what should we do? Shrug, and say “Well, we tried to give Li’l Kim a chance,” and walk away.

Two days after the failed launch, as if to tack a sick-o punch line to a lame joke, Kim Jong-un, the Hermit Kingdom’s new 28-year-old pygmy tyrant, delivered a public speech boasting of North Korea’s “military superiority” and vowing not to succumb to imperialist pressure.

This was typical rhetoric from the Kim dynasty—Il-sung, Jong-il, and now Jong-un, who often come off as the Borats of International Communism. What should we do about that speech and others like it? Nothing, except maybe giggle.

Are the North Koreans a threat? Not to the United States, not remotely. They have enough plutonium to build at most a handful of nuclear weapons, though whether they’ve built them, nobody knows. They’ve conducted underground tests twice, one in 2006, the other in 2009. The explosive power in both instances ranked extremely slight in the annals of nuclear coming-out parties.

There are signs that they’re preparing to test a uranium bomb. (The others were plutonium.) If they do, and if it’s a little bit more awesome than the earlier tests, the proper response, again, is … well, not quite to ignore it, but almost.

One obstacle to silence on this score is that we have allies in the region. Specifically, South Korea and Japan can’t be expected to strike a cool pose in the shadow of Pyongyang’s bomb. Nor can the United States, their ultimate guarantor of security, sit back and whistle as if nothing had happened. Doing so might send a signal, to all concerned, that we accept North Korea’s status as a nuclear power.

So, yes, the Obama administration should, again, issue the obligatory condemnation, draft a resolution for the U.N. Security Council, and ratchet up sanctions against Pyongyang’s regime. Just don’t expect this to result in much.