With his bombastic threat of “high-profile” retaliation against the U.S. (translation: more tests of nuclear bombs and missiles), North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seems determined to tantrum his way to the top of President Barack Obama’s second-term foreign policy agenda.
As the mythical Orientalism goes, in crisis there is opportunity. North Korea’s bellicose response to tighter United Nations sanctions has raised tensions with its closest ally, China. That offers a chance to contain and even reduce the dangers posed by one of the world’s most opaque and oppressive regimes.
The U.S., which is technically still at war with North Korea, has predicated peace talks on the country’s willingness to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Six-nation talks—involving North Korea, the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea—to ease tensions haven’t been held since December 2008. In its most recent statement, the North said it will give up its nukes only when everyone else gives up theirs, and that the six-party talks and a previous agreement of principles with the U.S. are null and void.
A sliver of hope comes from China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner and supplier of aid. Not only does China now support tighter sanctions, albeit not as tight as the U.S. wanted, but Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Communist Party, has also called the North’s nuclear program “intolerable.” The newly installed Xi has little interest in another regional dust-up, especially given China’s territorial spat with Japan and the need to make nice with a reelected Obama administration.
So when North Korea goes ahead with its nuclear test, which looks imminent, the Obama administration should push the Chinese hard for a coordinated response. If the Chinese balk, the U.S. will be justified in cooperating more closely with Japan and South Korea on missile defense, maritime patrols, counterproliferation initiatives, and other strategic efforts that China won’t like. The U.S. also has to build relations with South Korea’s incoming president, Park Geun Hye, who wisely wants to move away from the reflexively hard-line stance of her predecessor. The U.S. would be smart to take up Park’s suggestion of a China-U.S.-South Korea dialogue.
The challenge will be to find ways to expose and constrain North Korean behavior without deepening the isolation and privation of its people. What North Korea needs is more visits by the likes of Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google (GOOG). It needs more economic and cultural engagement with the rest of the world. That may be hard to do when the air is filled with acrid belligerence. Whoever said that healing the last wound of the Cold War was going to be easy?