But he is simply acting in a way that brings the results he expects from a successful pattern of global extortion. It begins with threats, moves to negotiations, results in economic and political benefits for the North, and is then repeated after Pyongyang spurns agreements.
The way out of this conundrum is for the United States to try a more assertive stance that gives the US the initiative and puts the North on its heels – for instance, by sending Pyongyang a clear warning of preemptive action if America and its allies find themselves threatened.
Of course, putting North Korea on the defensive won’t in and of itself mothball the country's nuclear program or bring a lasting peace to the Korean Peninsula. But it will put the US in a much stronger position to pursue those objectives.
The latest military precautions by Washington are useful to a degree. Welcome, too, are reports that the US and South Korea will respond “in kind” to any military provocations from the North. Still, because these are reactive, proportionate steps, they won’t go far enough to change Pyongyang’s behavior.
Mr. Kim’s ratcheting up of tensions should convince the US and South Korea that the new leader has the same goals as his father, Kim Jong-il, and will repeat the cycle of threats. The young Kim, like his predecessor, wants to show strength and independence of action despite an economic dependency on neighbors. He wants to prove to the ruling clique his determination to stand up to adversaries.
The 30-year-old Kim probably learned from his father that bilateral talks with Washington hold immeasurable value: implicit US recognition and acceptance as a nuclear power, showing to all Koreans he is the key leader determining the future of the peninsula with a superpower. Meanwhile, South Korea is relegated to the position of a second-tier actor.
These selfish motives show that the North’s political and military leadership is fundamentally disinterested in normal relations with the US. Indeed, they fear that normalization and opening up would spell the regime’s end.
Successive US administrations have taken the high road, probing for mutual concessions to bolster stability on the peninsula. True, this approach has helped maintain a tenuous peace. It has given the US some access to an obscure regime and allowed the US to address difficult foreign policy problems elsewhere.
But unfortunately, past negotiations have done little more than temporarily constrain Pyongyang’s provocations, and the downsides of talks have become more apparent in recent years.
Since Washington puts such a premium on stability through dialogue, its words of warning over time have lost their force and may even signal weakness to Pyongyang. Moreover, with every crisis, Washington seems much more concerned about containing the South Korean response while publicly calling for dialogue with the North. The North’s leaders have taken notice.
And it gets worse. North Korea has taken advantage of America’s altruism in negotiations to extract aid and de facto political recognition, while systematically ignoring or violating the terms of agreements.
To put an end to this, and to bring real stability to the peninsula, the US should find ways to tell Kim privately in clear and unmistakable terms that now things are different, given the North's claim that it will no longer abide by the armistice that halted the Korean War 60 years ago, and that it is at war with South Korea.
The message should also indicate that the US will defend itself and its allies even to the point of taking preemptive action against military moves it finds threatening – for instance, to disrupt North Korean preparations for short- or long-range missile launches or submarine operations that look to be targeted against US or South Korean forces, or even the US homeland. Washington should demonstrate its commitment to follow through, for example, by conducting close-in air and naval patrols, including overflights of the North. America has never undertaken the types of aggressive reconnaissance against the North that it routinely did against the Soviet Union.
If the US shows resolve, it will get the North’s attention and put it on the defensive. That’s what happened in August 1976. President Ford took the unusual step of placing US military forces on high alert in the region in response to the North’s murder of two US Army officers in the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. Pyongyang quickly backed down.
Such a US diplomatic shift would probably shock North Korea’s main ally and benefactor, China, into action and get it to move against the North in ways that American diplomatic imploring has failed to do so far. In addition, South Korea and Japan would gain renewed confidence in the US security commitment, and other countries in Asia would view Washington as a credible partner at a time they fear Chinese military assertiveness in the region.
A tougher approach is not risk free. Kim Jong-un might believe Washington is bluffing, overplay his hand in response, and start a shooting war inadvertently or otherwise.
The US must accept these short-term risks and be prepared to respond forcefully if it ever hopes to end the cycle of provocative behavior and promote long-term stability on the Korean Peninsula.
There is nothing North Korean leaders fear more than a US that turns its full gaze on them with the intent of possibly doing harm. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, after identifying it along with Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil,” Kim Jong-il disappeared in hiding for nearly two months.
Washington must now remember this lesson.
The author is a former CIA intelligence officer who specialized in the Korean Peninsula and China for more than a decade.