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.

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.

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.

But more to the point, don’t get bent out of shape. That would only play into their game. The North Korean leaders savor our attention. They grow a little in their own delusional stature every time we shudder over the grave danger they allegedly pose. They shine a little brighter in the domestic propaganda that touts them, and justifies their totalitarian rule, as the much-feared protectors of the Great Korean Nation.

Scott Snyder, in his seminal book Negotiating on the Edge, describes North Korea’s diplomatic style as “a prolonged cycle of crisis, intimidation and brinksmanship.” The trick to countering it is to break the cycle, and one way to do that is not to get sucked into it.

Instead of exaggerating their strength, we should solidify our own. Snyder notes the shrewd strategy pioneered by Kim Il-sung (North Korea’s founder and the current Kim’s grandfather) of behaving like a “shrimp among whales,” maximizing his leverage by playing the whales—the much larger, often hostile nations all around him—off one another.

The best way to counter that strategy is to disarm it. Clasp close to South Korea and Japan. Appear, smiling, with their leaders at every opportunity. Sign accords of all sort, meaningful or otherwise. Hold the occasional joint military exercise. Let loose a head-spinning statistic now and then, on how much air, sea, and ground power we could amass on the Korean peninsula while barely lifting a finger. Don’t brandish any of this. Do it all casually. Float like a butterfly, and quietly, calmly, let the North Koreans know how painful our bee sting will be if they pull anything like the crazy mischief they often threaten to unleash.

If a deal of some sort seems worthwhile and feasible, obviously, we should explore it. If not, we should pay more attention to important matters that we might affect.

There was a time when Pyongyang could be dealt with. In fact, President Bill Clinton did deal with it. The Agreed Framework, signed in 1994, halted North Korea’s plutonium program—and installed permanent inspectors in its reprocessing plant—for eight years. (Scott Snyder’s book is basically a guide to North Korea’s negotiating style and how to engage it.) In the opening weeks of George W. Bush’s presidency, Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters that he’d pick up where Clinton left off. Bush came down on Powell hard. To Bush and Dick Cheney, you didn’t negotiate with evil; you defeated it. Pyongyang tried to re-engage through various intermediaries, to no avail. So the North Koreans restarted their nuclear program, built a bomb, and tested it—at which point Bush offered to go back to the negotiating table, ill-prepared and too late.

Bush’s fallacy was thinking that the North Korean regime would collapse under the slightest pressure. The regime proved more durable—and Kim Jong-il, the “dear leader” of the time, much shrewder—than he or Cheney had imagined.

Obama’s fallacy is thinking that China can be prodded to force Kim & Co. to behave. That isn’t likely to happen, either. The Chinese leaders seem annoyed when North Korea launches a missile or sets off a bomb. But their primary interest in that part of the world is stability. They want above all to avert a collapse of Pyongyang’s regime, which might set off a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions as millions—perhaps tens of millions—of North Koreans cross the border to flee the ensuing chaos, exploit the sudden liberation, or both. China’s secondary interest in the region is to keep American air and naval forces bottled up in Northeast Asia and thus minimize the strength they can mobilize around the Taiwan straits. In other words, unless Kim Jong-un does something way more outlandish than anything his forefathers attempted, China is not interested in putting much pressure on North Korea to change its ways.

Daniel Sneider, associate director of the Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, advises a course of “strategic patience” when it comes to North Korea. “Deterrence, containment, engagement when it’s possible and productive—we shouldn’t have any problem doing that,” he says. “The situation isn’t urgent.”