Like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, North Korea is a little unbalanced and relentless. Obama's strategy of ignoring the country has failed.
The first thing to know about the apparently successful nuclear test is this: Don't Panic. Though the country seems to have corrected the mistakes that led to the failure of its October 2006 test (a "fizzle" that exploded at about 1 kiloton, far lower than the intended yield), all available evidence indicates that North Korea is still years away from a deliverable nuclear weapon.
Estimates of the test range from 4 to 20 kilotons (the Nagasaki bomb was about 15 kilotons). North Korea will have to perfect this device through additional tests, reducing its size so that it can be fashioned into a bomb that an airplane could carry. Further tests would be needed to shrink it down so it could be carried by a missile. There would have to be other, highly-observable missile tests to develop the long-range missiles that could carry the warhead and that could develop a re-entry vehicle that could survive the stresses and high temperatures of launch and re-entry into the atmosphere.
Still, the test is a dangerous development. It is likely the result of three factors.
First, internal politics--the maneuvering of various factions over who will succeed the ailing leader, Kim Jong Il. This could be an effort to shore up support with the military.
Second, it is part of North Korea's "India strategy," that is, test nuclear weapons (as India did in 1998), wait out the global condemnation, and eventually win acceptance from world leaders, like the US.
Third, this represents President Obama's first foreign policy failure. Obama followed the advice of staff who recommended ignoring North Korea. The argument was that North Korea had no place to go and would eventually come back to negotiations. This was a strategy endorsed by many former Bush officials. There was nothing like the diplomatic approaches that Obama has started with Iran--and North Korea noticed.
Obama officials even put preconditions on renewing negotiations, reportedly blocking Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth from going to North Korea until that country promised not to conduct another missile test. Officials also backed the tough line taken by South Korea, including curtailing fuel shipments to the north. Worse, some officials seem to have concluded that North Korea's program cannot be stopped, that the best we can do is "manage" the problem.
But North Korea will not be ignored. Or managed. Or coerced into compliance or collapse. These approaches were tried in the Bush administration. They failed. They only gave Pyongyang time to increase the threat of its nuclear and missile programs and export of sensitive technologies.
It is time to shift gears. We need a coordinated effort with China that combines pressure with incentives. Not just promises to talk, but a clear description of what North Korea could gain from stopping and then rolling back its program, coupled with sustained engagement that carries through on the commitments we make and gives the North Korean government the attention it thinks it deserves--however repugnant that may be.
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