Has North Korea finally gone too far?
Consensus is rising in the international community: Enough cajoling, it's time to get tough.
Washington — North Korea may have gone too far with this week's nuclear blast and missile launch, potentially provoking the kind of harsh international action that it has more often than not avoided in the past.
But it may also be that Pyongyang is operating with a different set of objectives: focused on solidifying its place in the world's nuclear club, come what may.
The United Nations Security Council is preparing a new resolution condemning North Korea's recent steps. The aim is to halt what it considers to be Pyongyang's threatening and destabilizing actions.
Several council members are calling for tough new sanctions. China and Russia, traditionally less eager to punish North Korea, are employing harsher rhetoric and reaffirming the need to walk the North back from nuclear status.
At the same time, officials, proliferation experts, and Asia analysts are increasingly calling for a new international approach to North Korea. They suggest that the country should no longer be treated like a child to be cajoled, but instead as a violator of international law that must face the consequences of its actions.
France, for example, wants the new resolution that Security Council members began discussing Tuesday afternoon to "include new sanctions ... because this behavior must have a cost and a price to pay," said Jean-Pierre Lacroix, France's deputy UN ambassador.
One scenario would place a priority on restarting the intermittent six-party talks, although critics say that process resulted in North Korea exploding two nuclear weapons, honing its missile technology, and joining the nuclear club.
A second would involve comprehensive international measures to "manage" proliferation and other threats posed by Pyongyang. This would help the regime there to sort out internal issues – including succession to ailing dictator Kim Jong Il. Some specialists in Korean issues say these internal issues are driving recent actions.
"North Korea's objectives have changed. It now seems hell-bent on establishing its nuclear status, having run through a string of provocations since January that really allowed no time for the kind of diplomatic response it aimed for in the past," says Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "They left no chance for the diplomatic goodies, which suggests their interest in them is not what it used to be."
On Wednesday, the regime said it would no longer abide by the five-decade-old truce between the Koreas, after South Korea announced it was joining a US-led security initiative that searches ships for nuclear weapons.
Tactical shift needed?
Monday's underground explosion of a nuclear weapon at a site near the Chinese border and Tuesday's test-firing of two short-range missiles followed April's launch of a Taepodong-2 long-range missile. Based on those actions, Mr. Klingner predicts North Korea will continue developing its nuclear and missile capabilities, perhaps as a reflection of its announced goal of becoming a "powerful nation" by 2012.
In response, the US and other international powers should abandon their "naïve" diplomatic efforts, Klingner says. Instead, they should focus on addressing the North's apparent decision to turn away from negotiation. The objective of such an international shift would be to get North Korea back to the negotiating table eventually – when serious pressures force it to discuss dismantling its nuclear program.
The US should also push for a tough new UN resolution, Klingner says. It should add North Korean companies and foreign partners involved in Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs to the UN sanctions list, he adds.
In addition, the US should lead a reinvigorated international effort to stop any illicit proliferation activities, as well as other alleged "illegal activity," such as money laundering and drug trafficking.
Others go farther, saying the US should reverse actions taken by the Bush administration to lure Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.
"Obama could put these fellows back on the terrorist list in 10 minutes," says Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) in Washington. "He could call [the Treasury Department] to get back on the sanctions of financial institutions that were laundering money in 15 minutes."
Mr. Sokolski is doubtful that President Obama will go that far, though an unnamed Treasury official told Reuters that officials were reviewing such an option.
As for listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, the Bush administration took North Korea off the State Department's list. It was part of a deal intended to open the North's nuclear facilities to international inspections.
Pyongyang never honored its part of the deal, yet it is too late to reverse the terrorism delisting, Klingner says. "That horse has left the barn, and any attempt at getting it back in would be difficult and distracting," he says.
It would require substantiating North Korea's involvement in terrorist activity.
A call for more patience
Another view of the appropriate international response to North Korea's action calls for greater patience. The primary advantage of this tactic is to allow time to figure out why Pyongyang is acting the way it is.
The Security Council has "no choice" but to incrementally ratchet up the pressure it put on North Korea in April after a missile launch, says James Walsh, a specialist in Korean security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
Yet if North Korea is being driven by internal factors, that could only make things worse, he adds: "Pressure on countries under transition tends to unsettle them even more."
The better response, Mr. Walsh adds, is "patient, persistent, and quiet" diplomacy. Such diplomacy would reassure countries like Japan and South Korea about their security, while waiting to see if Pyongyang will return to the negotiating table "in one, or two, or six months."
North Korea a model for other nuclear wannabes?
It is unlikely that other nations – such as Iran – would see North Korea's belligerence as a model, Walsh says: "Who wants to be North Korea? Where is there any evidence of that?"
Instead, he says that Iran has "bent over backwards to distinguish itself from North Korea" – by staying in the Nonproliferation Treaty, and by basing its nuclear program on a right to civilian nuclear energy.
Others say the "model" argument cannot be dismissed. Iran and North Korea have corroborated on missile development, notes NPEC's Sokolski.
The linchpin of the international response to North Korea's actions could be the position the Obama administration takes. This is the first direct test of Mr. Obama's preference for engaging instead of antagonizing adversaries.
The words of the president and his diplomats have been tough, regional analysts say, but they will need to be translated into deeds.
"To date, the Obama administration's rhetoric towards North Korea has been commendably firm," says Klingner of Heritage. "The question is, will the action match the rhetoric? For that, we have to wait and see."