Ever notice the modus operandi of movie villains? When the villain captures the noble protagonist, instead of simply executing the latter and moving on to perform other evil deeds, he dithers and trots out complex machinery to “torture” the hero for a while — a gift, really — leaving just enough time and wiggle room for the protagonist to escape and bring the villain to justice.
That, in a nutshell, is North Korea today — a dangerous, but incompetent villain.
The six-party talks to denuclearize North Korea has stalled. While Japan has aligned its North Korea policy with that of the United States (Prime Minister Koizumi is always welcome at Graceland), South Korea has continued to appease North Korea, and China has remained unwilling to restrain its ally in Pyongyang.
In other words, while the Bush administration’s rhetoric on North Korea has been outstanding, its actual policy has not been effective. And time was running out on the administration. It was looking more and more like North Korea would wait out the remainder of the “lame duck” administration and shop for a more amenable negotiating partner, perhaps hoping that it could repeat the Clintonian bargain struck in 1994 (known as the Agreed Framework).
But like Hollywood’s dangerous, but incompetent villains, North Korea has offered the United States an unwitting gift. Despite the admonition from all the regional powers, including China and South Korea, not to test-fire its Taepodong 2 missile, it went ahead to do so yesterday and fired off several shorter range missiles for a good measure. Better still, its main intercontinental ballistic missile test went awry, as did its earlier Taepodong 1 test of 1998.
This was the best of all outcomes. The test likely provided a wealth of intelligence data for the U.S. The failure of the test was also a great blow to the prestige of the North Korean regime and its leader, Kim Jong-il in particular. Furthermore, Pyongyang’s aggressive provocation threw eggs on the faces of Beijing and Seoul that have propped up the North Korean regime.
The stage is now set for a decisive action from the United States. Clearly, any military strike against North Korea is out of question, and would, in any case, abdicate the now accrued diplomatic advantages. Instead, the U.S. should press for an immediate quarantine of North Korea to prevent the outflow of ballistic missile and nuclear technology and the inflow of energy and food that sustain the regime. And, for a change, Pyongyang will have to give up something to end the quarantine.
Japan, already angered by past North Korean provocations, will join the U.S. immediately. Given a sufficient demonstration of willpower from Washington, Seoul will, in the end, not object to this policy (in any case, if it were to do so, the present South Korean administration will implode finally, leaving the way for a conservative administration next year). A tougher bargain will be required to bring Moscow to the fold, but given its relatively low level of leverage and interest in North Korea, it will not be impossible.
That leaves, as always, Beijing. To say that China is embarrassed by North Korea’s latest provocation is an understatement. Thus it is now the time to press Beijing hard, for once. North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear threat would not be where it is today were it not for Beijing, and the U.S. should finally make China take responsibility — by agreeing to the quarantine. And the United States should make the continued Sino-American economic relationship contingent on China acting like a mature great power by exercising this responsibility.
Ultimately, China’s economic relationship with the U.S. is far more important for China’s economic growth and political stability than continuing to protect North Korea’s arsenal. The choice ought to be, thus, very clear for China’s leaders — provided, of course, that Washington presents Beijing with the choice.
Will the Bush administration, at last, exercise this potent lever to contain North Korea’s nuclear and proliferation threat? Or will the pro-China business lobby again trump national security and constrain the administration into rhetorically magnificent, but utterly ineffectual, symbolic gestures?