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North Korea’s missile tests this week reflect a symmetry of logic with that of its superpower foe. Kim Jong-il, the country’s leader, launched the missiles to show the world and his people that he would not bow to pressure from US financial sanctions. George W. Bush, the US president, similarly will not bow to pressure to lift those sanctions.
Having warned North Korea about the consequences of a test, the US and the rest of the concerned world must now follow through with additional sanctions to show Pyongyang that there is indeed a price to pay for its provocation. North Korea will then feel compelled to show again that it does not give in to pressure.
How do we get out of this vicious cycle? First, we should pause to consider that the North Korean military threat, while significant, is no worse as a result of the tests. It would be otherwise if the launch of its long-range Taepodong-2 missile had been successful, giving Pyongyang an intercontinental ballistic missile strike capability. The short-range missiles tested the same day were already proved technology for North Korea. The tests may have demonstrated improved accuracy of North Korea’s Scuds, but the main impact of those launches was to provide covering fire, as it were, for the failed Taepodong. The North Koreans wanted something that would make a bang on America’s Independence Day.
It is wise for the west not to overreact. The suggestion of a pre-emptive strike on the test site would have been an unnecessary act of war, sparking military retaliation from North Korea and a political reaction from South Korea, including a likely demand for US troops to leave.
Second, the world needs to stay united and demonstrate that the United Nations Security Council can take swift and firm action. China, which prevented the Security Council from acting when North Korea expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in 2003 and resumed plutonium production, should no longer be allowed to claim that the six-party talks with Pyongyang involving Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and America – chaired by Beijing – is the only appropriate forum for addressing the North Korean problem. It will be important for Iran as well to see that the Security Council is more than a debating society.
Third, containment policies should be strengthened, at least to prevent North Korea from trafficking its missile and nuclear wares. The Proliferation Security Initiative, introduced by America, and US-led financial controls are important efforts to stop dangerous North Korean exports. US pressure has already closed down most of Pyongyang’s erstwhile missile customers in the Middle East, but Iran and Syria remain in the market. Deployment of advanced Patriot interceptor missiles in Japan will provide defence against the most likely targets of North Korean blackmail threats.
Fourth, the US needs to find a new way to address the main problem. The containment and deterrence policies, however necessary, have done nothing to halt the expansion of North Korea’s deadly arsenals. North Korea continues to add a weapon’s worth of plutonium annually to a stock that already quadrupled during the Bush administration’s first term.
To address these threats, Washington needs to be able to talk to Pyongyang – not as an ad hoc response to the missile tests, but on an ongoing basis. An established bilateral channel would be a forum for restoring the missile-
testing moratorium North Korea agreed to in 1999 but called off last year. The US policy of limiting communication to the six-party talks – on the dubious grounds that only multilateral talks can ensure buy-in from the other stakeholders – unnecessarily limits Washington’s options. Every one of Washington’s negotiating partners urges US bilateral talks with Pyongyang.
As in the 1999 missile moratorium and the 1994 agreed framework, negotiations can produce a deal. Although those deals were imperfect, a freeze is far better than expansion of the nuclear weapons. The contours of a new nuclear deal were outlined last September in the joint statement of principles emanating from the six-party talks, in which Pyongyang provisionally agreed to dismantle its nuclear programme. North Korea needs to know that changing its belligerent policies would bring real benefits.
Striking a deal on missiles is doable, given the many economic and diplomatic sticks and carrots in Washington’s hand. The difficulty for Mr Bush is self-imposed: getting past the ideological hurdle that precludes talking to rogue regimes because of the legitimacy that sitting together presumably confers. In agreeing to join talks with Iran, Mr Bush showed admirable flexibility and offered Tehran’s leaders a way to a diplomatic solution if only they would grasp the opportunity. He should be able to find a similarly subtle way of showing Pyongyang’s leader a way out of the vicious cycle. Otherwise the next test might be of a Taepodong-2 that works – or, worse, of a nuclear weapon.
The writer, a former US deputy assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation, is a senior fellow at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies