04/16/2012 12:40 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2012

How to Handle North Korea: Don't Just Do Something, Stand There

Here we go again. American and North Korean negotiators met in February for talks. North Korea undertook to freeze its nuclear program and to not test ballistic missiles in return for food supplies. Alas, we should anticipate a continuation of the unproductive pattern evident since the run-up to the 1994 "Agreed Framework" under which Pyongyang agreed to dismantle its suspect nuclear facilities in exchange for U.S., Japanese, and South Korean aid, including light-water reactors that would yield electricity but not fissile material for bomb-making.

This is roughly what's happened over the past two decades. Meetings commence, raising hopes that North Korea can be persuaded to freeze and then decommission its plutonium separation and uranium enrichment installations. Pyongyang fails to deliver, evicts inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and charges the U.S. and South Korea with reneging on promises of aid.

Before long, it does something attention grabbing: admitting (in 2002) to a covert nuclear weapons program; withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (2003); testing nuclear weapons (2006 and 2009); calling, yet again, for renewed talks. Diplomats from Washington and Pyongyang convene, and the "Six-party Talks," among North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, and Russia, six rounds of which were held between 2003 and 2009 and have since been in abeyance, resume.

So it has been -- and will be.

The result? North Korea's interlocutors are no closer to success than when this shadow dance began. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has leveraged threats and tantrums, and even fears about its economic collapse, into intermittent talks and deliveries of fuel oil and food. Give North Korea credit: it plays a weak hand with finesse.

Any parent will see the problem here: truculence reinforced by conciliation guarantees more of the former. But North Korea is no child. Nor should it be treated like one given the catastrophic consequences that war on the Korean peninsula would bring.

Yet, analysts tend to exaggerate the North's power.

With its Dickensian industrial network and decrepit infrastructure, North Korea has a $40 billion GDP that ranks 99th internationally. South Korea commands cutting-edge technology and mega-companies and is world-class exporter of hi-tech and industrial products. Its GDP is $1.5 trillion -- 13th globally. The two Koreas had economies of comparable size in the 1970s; now the South's is almost 40 times larger. North Korea is plagued by famine (between one and three million people died of hunger in the latter part of the 1990s) and malnutrition. Its per-capita GDP, a rough, but common, measure of living standards, is $1,800 (global rank: 193, just ahead of Bangladesh). The South's is $31,700, a 1:17 ratio relative to the North's and close to the EU's average, $34,000.

Hold on, you might say, what about that North Korean military juggernaut? Here, things get more complicated. Pyongyang has many more troops: 1.1 million vs. 686,000. It also has more armor and artillery -- although the gap is much less than it is for troops -- while the numbers for air and naval forces are comparable. Most of the North's firepower is massed near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a mere 25 miles from Seoul.

But the big difference is in quality, and Friday's failed launch -- the fourth since 1998 -- of North Korea's Unha-3 long-range rocket, which the North insisted was built to loft a satellite into orbit but was seen by outside experts as a precursor to an intercontinental ballistic missile, symbolizes Pyongyang's technological lag.

A comparison of the North Korean and South Korean militaries highlights the gap. About half of the North's Soviet-vintage armor and aircraft date back to the 1960s, and the rest are older. The South's arsenal includes an assortment of advanced American aircraft, tanks, artillery, and air-defense missiles (including the Patriot system). Its navy has many more major warships than the South's, including the technologically advanced, home-built Sejon and King Gwanggaeto destroyers and Ulsan frigates, and 20 modern submarines. With a much bigger economy the South can spend more on defense than the North, and does--$37 billion vs. $10 billion currently -- and with a burden that's only 2.5% of its GDP compared to the North's 25%.

This comparison excludes the 24,000 or so American soldiers in South Korea, who can be reinforced by troops and weapons from Japan, Hawaii, Guam, the U.S. mainland, and elsewhere. Given the South's military might, I'm unconvinced by the prevailing view that it can't defend itself without U.S. support; still the American forces certainly serve to remind Pyongyang that war with South Korea means war with the United States.

True, North Korea has a small stash (the precise number is unknown) of nuclear weapons. But what exactly can it do with them? It's a safe bet that it would use them were it facing a military defeat. Beyond that, while Pyongyang's nuclear arms get a lot of attention, they can't be used without imperiling the regime. That's something that neither Kim Il-sung nor Kim Jong-il, bouts of bluster notwithstanding, showed any inclination to do. There's no reason to think that the recently-anointed supreme leader, twenty-eight-year old Kim Jong-un, will be different in this regard than his father and grandfather.

None of this is to say that North Korea should be trifled with, let alone provoked. But, aside from reciprocating when it takes (rather than promises) positive steps, providing assistance to alleviate ordinary North Koreans' suffering when natural disasters and food shortages strike, and eschewing provocative doctrines of regime change, which give states like North Korea and incentive to acquire nuclear weapons, the best course of action toward Pyongyang is inaction.