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Week of 10.12.06

The Best U.S. Response to North Korea's Failed Missile Test

David Kang David Kang is associate professor at Dartmouth College. He is the co-author of "Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies" and has been a visiting professor at Korea University. He is currently working on a book about China's relations with East Asia.

The interview below was conducted October 12, 2006, following North Korea's alleged nuclear tests earlier in the month. Beneath that is a NOW exclusive essay from July, 7 2006, following North Korea's failed missile test on July 4.

NOW Exclusive Interview, October 12, 2006

NOW: Were you surprised that North Korea reportedly tested a nuclear device?

DAVID KANG: I was surprised they tested so soon -- I thought they would have announced and then waited a month or so to see the international reaction. But overall, given the response to the missile tests, I'm not that surprised that a test occurred.

NOW: You said in July on NOW that the North Korean threat is over-hyped, do you still believe that?

DK: In a military sense, yes. The test only confirmed what most of us have suspected for a number of years now: that North Korea has a few crude nuclear devices. Given the failed missile launch of July, North Korea still has no deliverable nuclear or missile capability. The threat arises from the possibility that North Korea would sell its weapons to terrorist groups, not that North Korea itself would attack. Furthermore, North Korea's threat to the region lies more in its weakness than its strength. That is, regime collapse in North Korea would unleash literally millions of refugees that would flood over the borders to South Korea and China, the armed forces in North Korea could potentially begin fighting among themselves or with other countries' militaries, and the economic cost would reverberate around the region.

NOW: Were you relieved that the test(s) were reportedly failures?

DK: Not really. North Korea continues to work on its weapons and missile programs, and while they may not have perfected them quite yet, it's only a matter of time. The real issue is how to arrive at a solution to the problem.

NOW: What do you think the United States should do?

DK: What I think the U.S. should do and what it will do are two different things! The U.S. is going to push for Chapter VII sanctions through the UN, step up its proliferation security initiative that targets smuggling of weapons materials, and continue its tough rhetoric. However, as we've seen in the case of Iraq under Hussein or Pakistan in 1998, sanctions rarely achieve their goal of forcing a country to change its behavior. So while these measures are predictable, we should be aware that they are unlikely to have any impact on North Korea.

The key question is why North Korea conducted its test. There are three possibilities: it was an unprovoked act of blackmail and aggression, a response to Chinese and South Korean economic engagement, or a response to pressure from the U.S. and Japan. Most likely, the North Korean nuclear test -- like its missile firings in July -- was a response to the continued U.S. financial and economic pressure. Last September, in the same week that the U.S. signed an agreement in principle with North Korea and the other members of the six party talks (the U.S., Russia, China, Japan, South and North Korea), it also imposed financial sanctions on North Korean overseas banks accounts for illegal money laundering. Although the U.S. claims these two actions were separate, it is not hard to see that Pyongyang could view the financial pressure as undermining the credibility of the U.S. agreement.

The U.S. needs to decide whether coercion is helping contain and resolve the North Korean nuclear threat, or whether it is in fact exacerbating that threat by prompting a response from North Korea. As is the case of most countries, North Korea has historically met external pressure with pressure of its own. Some believe that even more coercion will eventually cause the North to capitulate. Yet in the past four years since the second nuclear crisis broke out, the plutonium program that was suspended and under IAEA inspections is now back in full production, the world community does not know how much plutonium has been produced, and the North has now conducted a nuclear test. If coercion works, there is little evidence of it in North Korea's actions.

At the same time, although the economic engagement approach taken by China and South Korea has had success in opening up North Korea's economy, it has not had a spillover effect on the security issues, in part because the U.S. has not chosen to participate. Without coordination by China, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, it is unlikely that any policy will be effective. It would be ironic if failed coercion forces South Korea and China to abandon their engagement strategies.

What is the solution? Mistrust is so high on both sides that probably little can be done in the short or even medium term. But all sides know the ultimate solution: North Korea abandons its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for genuine normalization of ties and a peace treaty with the United States. Short of that, there is little reason to think that applying even more pressure on North Korea will finally result in a de-escalation of tension.

NOW Exclusive Essay, July 7, 2006

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il
North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il. AP/Wide World Photos
North Korea's failed intercontinental ballistic missile test of July 4 has garnered international attention and concern, even prompting an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

Why did North Korea conduct a missile test on July 4? The most likely reason was a North Korean response to recent coercive measures by the United States with their own show of force, in order to let the U.S. know that North Korea will not back down. The past nine months has seen the U.S. put consistent low-level pressure on North Korea, from sanctioning banks in Macao that deal with North Korean currency to rhetorical pressure on North Korea's deplorable human rights record. North Korea has a history of responding to pressure with more pressure, and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, may have thought it important that he show the U.S that its tactics will not go unanswered.

No matter what the cause of the missile test, its failure -- within the first minute of flight -- was a major setback for North Korea. If North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was hoping to impress other countries with his nation's military prowess, he failed in the most public of ways.

Real Threat or Hype?

It is worth noting that North Korea's missile threat has been far over-hyped in the Western media. Not only is it extraordinarily difficult to build a missile that can go six thousand miles and land where you want it, actually putting a warhead that will blow up when it is supposed to makes the task infinitely more difficult. The first test of this missile failed in 1998, and the second failed yesterday. North Korea is a long way from having a deliverable nuclear missile system, and most analysts estimate it may be well over a decade before they can hope to achieve this capability.

In light of this, the immediate reaction of the Bush administration was the right one: calm under-reaction. If Kim's goal truly was to get attention from the West, the worse response would be to give him that attention. Yet the administration can be faulted in its longer-term approach to North Korea. Since 2002, the U.S. has engaged in half-hearted multilateral negotiations, accompanied by a steadfast refusal by the U.S. to meet directly with the North Koreans.

It is quite likely that North Korea will test missiles again in the future. It is also fairly clear that the U.S. has no intention of backing down. The U.S. has pursued a contradictory stance -- insisting that the issue is one of international concern, and yet being one of the few countries (along with Japan) that actually feels that concern.

For example, the U.S. has consistently urged both China and Russia to join it in putting pressure on North Korea. However, China and Russia view the North Korean issue differently than does the United States. The U.S. is focused on North Korean strength: its nuclear and missile programs, and the U.S. is willing to apply coercive measures on North Korea toward that end. China and Russia, however, are more concerned about North Korean weakness: economic and political collapse that could lead to millions of refugees flooding China and upsetting economic and political stability in the region. As a consequence, China, and to a lesser extent, Russia and South Korea, are actively pushing economic reforms in the North, and are expanding their economic and cultural ties with the North, in an effort to pull North Korea into the international community. This strategy is unlikely to change merely because of one failed missile test.

Few Options

This difference in assessments of the North Korean problem highlights a major problem in developing a foreign policy to deal with North Korea: there are very few genuine options available to the U.S. and its allies. A war would devastate the peninsula and potentially involve China, the U.S., and Japan -- a situation nobody wants. Sanctions will be largely ineffective because China and Russia will not go along for reasons stated above. This leaves the U.S. with either rhetorical condemnation or a major shift in strategy towards one of negotiation and engagement -- a shift that is highly unlikely in the current administration. Thus, it is unlikely that this failed missile test will result in any new policy measures from the Bush administration.

This is unfortunate, because most reactions to the missile test have focused on military solutions, such as calls to preempt the missile launch or hopes that the theater missile defense system will be successful. Yet the North Korean problem is political, not military, and solving it will require a political solution. The risks of promoting violent change are very high, and fifty years of successful deterrence shows we can contain the North Korean threat. Alternatively, a strategy of economic engagement that saturates North Korean citizens with capitalist ideas and slowly changes their mindset while raising their living standards is the best strategy for the United States to pursue.

Can we live with North Korea for another twenty years? We may have no choice. If that is the case, facilitating market reforms in North Korea is the strategy most likely to fundamentally change the regime while also reducing the North Korean threat to the international community.