04/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Progressive Strategy for US-North Korea Relations

Every neighborhood has that bratty kid, who insists on being allowed to play with the big kids, throwing a tantrum if refused. North Korea, the bratty kid of North Asia, is preparing to throw a tantrum of its own--recently announcing plans to launch a satellite--which poses serious threats to regional stability. A satellite launch is innocuous enough, except for the fact that it disguises a nascent long-range ballistic missile. This is a challenge, but it also gives the Obama administration a chance to break through two decades of stalemate in US attempts to rein in North Korea's nuclear program through a balance of strength and subtlety.

By this point, the back-and-forth of US-North Korean negotiations have become all too familiar. Hard-line US positions result in North Korean intransigence, while US engagement seems to lead only to duplicity from the other side. Diplomatic initiatives during the Clinton administration and Bush's second term yielded little progress, while the "axis of evil"-driven hard-line stance of Bush's first term led only to a hardening of North Korean resolve.

The problem stems from the nature of North Korea's intentions. Scholars of international relations have long debated whether states seek security or power, and North Korea does little to clarify the issue. Despite the hyperbolic rhetoric of the first Bush Administration, North Korea does seem to desire security, rather than domination over the region. The state's economy is almost nonexistent, and the regime of Kim Jong-Il perceives most of its neighbors (and the US troops on its southern border) to be serious threats to its survival.

These factors have prompted North Korea to adopt a policy of brinksmanship - a fancy term for an international hissy fit - in order gain concessions from the US and its allies. Yet, North Korea has taken several steps--such as continuing nuclear development, kidnapping Japanese citizens, and the current missile launch--that seem difficult to reconcile with just the search for security. Such actions likely stem from personal quirks of Kim--the need for ever-increasing amounts of attention, reminiscent of that bratty kid--or a desire to attain rough parity with other states, rather than desire for regional hegemony. Yet, this means that North Korea will not just go away if ignored, and the instability of the state, combined with nuclear-tipped long-range missiles, could create a severe crisis.

This produces a distinct challenge for the Obama administration concerning the upcoming launch. Pushing North Korea too strongly will be futile, and may even exacerbate the situation. Allowing North Korea to launch the missile with no challenge will signal our unwillingness to stand up to their brinkmanship. If North Korea crosses an internationally-agreed upon red line, though, it may face international anger and moderate its stance, as occurred after the 2006 North Korean nuclear test. Obama must call North Korea's bluff, but in such a way that wins the support of regional actors such as Japan and China, thus forcing Kim's regime to choose between stability or international isolation.

Such a strategy would involve three steps by Obama. First, he should make it clear that any testing of a long-range missile is unacceptable. This would remove any ambiguity in North Korea over the US stance on this move. Second, Obama should also announce that we will take no measures to interfere with North Korea's own sovereignty, allaying Kim's concerns that the United States desires regime change. Third, Obama should work with the Japanese government to display the capabilities of US-made Japanese ballistic missile defenses, and Japan's willingness to use them if a North Korea missile overflies its territory. This will demonstrate our resolve, and also draw in other states to enhance the multilateral nature of our actions. This will guarantee that the Kim will receive little sympathy from the international community.

Acting on such a policy will be difficult, but Obama benefits from the experience of the Clinton administration's efforts and the lack of the right-wing ideological straitjacket that constrained US actions in the Bush administration's first term. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's admirable focus on Asia and backing for the beleaguered Japanese prime minister could be leveraged to gain regional support. Also, the successful implementation of such a policy could provide a progressive model for future crises, charting a middle course between neoconservative hard-lines and appeasement.