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North Korea Launch Shows Obama Lacks Clout as Do Allies

Hours after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned North Korea about avoiding “provocation,” Pyongyang launched a rocket and underscored the recurring U.S. failure to contain the erratic Asian country.

The rocket carrying a satellite disintegrated over the Yellow Sea April 12, scattering debris off the South Korean coast and generating political fallout half a world away. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said it showed the “appeasement” and “incompetence” of President Barack Obama’s attempts to engage diplomatically with North Korea.

For decades, both Democratic and Republican U.S. administrations have levied financial sanctions, threatened to withhold food aid and backed UN resolutions in unsuccessful efforts to end North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles.

“It’s puzzling that the world’s greatest power is unable to, and has been unable to, deal with this backward country,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of Korean Studies at Tufts University near Boston.

Differences among countries negotiating with Pyongyang, weakness within the regime and the perceived value of its nuclear program mean the world has little leverage over North Korea. Pyongyang has “constantly outperformed their bigger neighbors” when it comes to the North’s talks with the U.S., Russia, China, Japan and South Korea, Lee said.

‘Agreed Framework’

President Bill Clinton considered military action before reaching an “agreed framework” in 1994 intended to freeze the North’s nuclear program, according to the Congressional Research Service. That deal collapsed after the U.S. concluded in 2002 that Pyongyang was cheating, and the North conducted an underground nuclear test in 2006.

Starting in December of that year, Republican President George W. Bush pursued talks and relaxed financial sanctions, released frozen North Korean funds, resumed food aid and then in 2008 took North Korea off a State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. The talks broke down in early 2009, and North Korea tested a rocket and conducted an underground nuclear explosion that drew increased UN sanctions.

Leadership of the deeply isolated country of 23 million is built around the cult-like worship of the Kim family. On the death of Kim Il Sung, grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un, North Korean media reported that streams ran backward and bears were seen crying. The ruling clique has pursued its nuclear weapons and its own survival at the cost of worsening the poverty and hunger endured by most North Koreans.

“There’s a ruthless logic to what they do,” Lee said.

Security Council Reacts

The United Nations Security Council met April 13 to discuss the North Korean rocket launch, “deplored” the action and agreed it was in violation of UN sanctions, said U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, speaking as president this month of the 15-member body. The council imposed sanctions against North Korea after its first nuclear test in 2006 and followed up with more sanctions after its second test in 2009, also banning it from developing missile technology.

The UN’s April 13 response didn’t threaten further sanctions. Doing so would be a step too far for Security Council member China, North Korea’s main ally and supporter, according to George Lopez, a former member of the UN Panel of Experts for enforcing sanctions on North Korea. The Chinese will solicit Russia’s support in exchange for the backing Beijing gives Moscow in council talks about Syria, Lopez said.

North Korea Inc.

China’s overriding priority is preventing North Korea’s collapse, said Banning Garrett, director of the Asia Program and Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group. China worries that such a development would trigger a humanitarian crisis, send a surge of refugees over its border and draw involvement by other nations, including the U.S., he said.

China provides the bulk of North Korean aid and trades through its state-owned enterprises, providing the regime with economic life support even as other countries tighten sanctions.

North Korea’s structure also plays a role, according to John Park, a research fellow at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“The bottom line is that, when you negotiate with North Korea, you’re not dealing with a country, you’re dealing with North Korea Inc., a system of elites that operate the country for their own operating budget and their own survival,” Park said in a telephone interview.

Day-to-Day Survival

“There are major constraints to the North Korean system,” said Park, who studies the state trading companies run by the elite. “They’re not geared to long-term strategy; there’s no mechanism for it. It’s really all about tactical, day-to-day survival,”

Within the U.S. government, there has long been a debate about what incentives might entice North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. Lee and Garrett said they doubt anything will work, given that the North sees nuclear weapons as a source of leverage internationally.

“If they gave up their weapons program in return for huge amounts of aid, what would they do after the aid dried up?” said Lee.

The fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi is likely to discourage leaders in countries such as North Korea from surrendering their chemical or nuclear weapons as Qaddafi did, Garrett said.

“Not to be sympathetic to the North Koreans, but look what happened to Qaddafi,” Garrett said in a telephone interview.

The rocket launch, which violated a Feb. 29 agreement with the U.S., was promoted by North Korea as a tribute on the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth.

Political Fallout

The Obama administration agreement was meant to halt North Korea’s nuclear activities and open the way for sending food aid and further talks.

“Instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as naïve as it was short-lived,” Romney said in a statement.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes dismissed the description of Obama’s attempt to engage with North Korea as a failure. “Absolutely not,” Rhodes said.

Unlike Bush, Obama never delivered aid or other inducements for North Korean cooperation, he told reporters. “What this administration has done is broken the cycle of supporting provocative actions by the North Koreans that we’ve seen in the past.”

“Under the previous administration, for instance, there was a substantial amount of assistance provided to North Korea,” he said. “North Korea was removed from the terrorism list, even as they continued to engage in provocative actions.”

Rhodes referred to the Bush administration’s decision to start negotiating with Pyongyang after the North conducted a rocket test on July 4, 2006, and an underground nuclear explosion on Oct. 9, 2006.

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