Things have gotten worse.
Over the weekend, North Korea conducted what seems to be a successful test of a nuclear device that erases the failure of its previous attempt. Yesterday and today, North Korea has been launching several missiles -- both surface-to-air and surface-to-ship -- and is threatening to launch several more tomorrow. President Obama has vowed a swift and strong response to the test and launches, but it's not clear what good options exist at this point. Dan Blumenthal and Robert Kagan, in an op-ed in today's Washington Post outline the paucity of choices for the US:
Blumenthal and Kagan argue that neither China nor Russia has any serious interest in reining in North Korea, and thus efforts focused on mustering international will through the UN are useless.
the United States probably has little choice but to wait out Kim until the emergence of a leader who can make the strategic decision to abandon the nuclear weapons program. In the meantime, Washington should embark on a three-pronged approach. First, it should enhance its deterrent to protect itself, South Korea and Japan. That means, above all, bolstering American and allied missile defenses and deterrent capabilities. Unfortunately, it is precisely American missile defense capabilities that the Obama administration is now cutting -- despite the growing missile threat from North Korea and Iran. Second, it should strengthen multilateral efforts to stem North Korean proliferation, including more active efforts at interdiction and freezing bank accounts used to fund proliferation. Third, it should give up on the six-party talks. If it ever proves useful to talk to Pyongyang -- a big "if" -- let's do so directly.
While it's true that China does have an interest in a unpredictable and unfettered North Korea, that interest has its limits. China most certainly does not have an interest in a strengthened and proliferated Japan, which is a very serious possibility in the wake of the latest test. As Reuters reported over the weekend, Japan's ruling party is preparing to alter the constitution to allow for preemptive strikes under Japan's pacifistic doctrine. The LDP is also considering developing an indigenous early-warning satellite capability as Japan is currently dependent on US intelligence for warning of missile launches.
This would be a most unwelcome development for both China and Russia, which have long benefited from having a weakened and restrained Japan on their borders. And this is Obama's opening.
It's true that there aren't really any good options here. While it may have been feasible for the US to strike against the rocket launched two months ago, it is not possible for the US to use limited strikes against the nuclear program or the short-range missiles being launched now. The only option that exists while waiting out the passing of Kim Jong-Il is to get the UN to impose a complete and total sanctions regime on North Korea along the lines of that which was imposed on South Africa during the apartheid era. Doing so would require not just the acquiesence but the participation of both China and Russia, neither of which would participate for free.
But Obama has two things to offer: One is the prospect of the US operating through the multilateral channels of the UN, which Obama has clearly expressed a preference for doing when possible. Obama should make it clear to both Russia and China that North Korea is a test of their willingness to support the UN on issues of security, and that if they fail, the US will simply consider the UN to be obsolete on such issues in the future. If they want the UN to be a major player and to restrain the unilateralism of the US, then the UN has to be able to deal with such relatively easy cases as North Korea. Second, Obama should offer to use his good offices to prevent Japan from expanding its military doctrine and, down the road, from proliferating.
Both of these are issues about which Russia and China both care deeply; more deeply I believe than they care about keeping North Korea on the loose. If Obama plays his cards right, North Korea can be made to pay a meaningful and painful price for its wanton disregard of its obligations under international law.
But I doubt Obama will play his cards right. While Obama has shown a willingness to talk to any and all and to "reset" US relations, so far his talking has borne little if any fruit. Iran is just as intransigent, if not more so, than before, North Korea is, obviously, even more defiant, and Russia and China have responded to Obama's overtures with caution rather than warmth. So far, I've seen little evidence that Obama, his cabinet, or his policy aides have a strong coherent sense of policy to match their enthusiasm for talking.