The North Korea conundrum

The Obama administration is reacting responsibly to a series of provocations from North Korea, shoring up defenses while seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis. But even if North Korea is deterred from attacking South Korea or U.S. forces for the foreseeable future, the defiance it has demonstrated in the last several weeks renders more elusive than ever achievement of the administration’s ultimate goal: a Korean peninsula without nuclear weapons.

Last month the U.N. Security Council — including China, North Korea’s longtime patron — approved new economic sanctions after North Korea conducted a third nuclear test. Undeterred, the North announced Tuesday that it would restart a plutonium reactor it shuttered in 2007.

The immediate concern for the United States and South Korea is a cascade of statements and actions by North Korea that threaten the military and political status quo on the Korean peninsula. North Korea insists that it’s responding to a threat posed by U.S. military aircraft that took part in recent training exercises; the real explanation for its bellicose actions is the ongoing campaign to deprive the North of nuclear weapons.


The North has declared that it is entering a “state of war” with the South and has barred South Korean employees from an industrial park jointly operated by the two Koreas. As for the United States, the regime has announced that its military has been authorized to respond to U.S. aggression with “smaller, lighter and diversified” nuclear weapons. On Thursday, South Korea’s defense minister said that the North had moved to the east coast of the country a missile with a “considerable” range.

Though few experts actually believe North Korea has any intention of attacking U.S. interests or South Korea, the U.S. responded by deploying two missile defense warships in the Pacific Ocean and will position missile defense systems in the U.S. territory of Guam. Such measures are prudent. Korea’s Kim Jong Un has only been in power for a little more than a year, and it would be irresponsible for the Obama administration to ignore his bold threats.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is attempting to enlist China in an effort to calm the situation, enforce the sanctions and up the pressure on its North Korean ally. That’s the best option, to be sure; China, after all, keeps Kim’s regime afloat with food and energy supplies. Unfortunately, similar entreaties by this and other American administrations have proved largely unsuccessful over the years because China has many strategic reasons to continue to support the status quo.

Even if the current crisis is brought to a quick end, it demonstrates how determined North Korea is to establish itself as a nuclear power, an ambition that if accomplished could lead not only South Korea but Japan to consider acquiring nuclear weapons. That is why the United States must continue to try to engage North Korea in an agreement in which it would trade its nuclear program for aid and normal relations. Unfortunately, the events of the last few weeks suggest that there is little interest in such an agreement in Pyongyang.