On Sunday, North Korea launched a Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that went farther than any of its predecessors before falling harmlessly into the Pacific. What was the point of the exercise? Pyongyang claims the launch was designed to put a communications satellite into orbit and that it succeeded in doing so. Nobody else believes either assertion, with officials in the United States, Japan, and South Korea portraying the launch as a test of a long-range delivery system for a nuclear weapon.

Instant commentary in the West saw the launch as essentially a cry for help -- a bid to win attention from the Obama administration and start a new round of talks from a stronger bargaining position. The problem with this explanation is that Stephen Bosworth, Washington's newly appointed special envoy for North Korea, was just in Asia armed with a very clear message from President Obama about the administration's readiness to engage in immediate high-level bilateral negotiations -- and got no answer. 

In reality, the launch probably reflects two other dynamics. The first is a straightforward desire by North Korea to advance its ballistic missile technology. Countries do not pursue ICBMs or nuclear weapons simply to accumulate negotiating chips. Pyongyang's devotion of massive amounts of very scarce resources to such projects suggests it actually wants to acquire these capabilities and be accepted by the world as a nuclear weapons state. It is unlikely to be willing to trade them away in return for international acceptance and a peace treaty with the United States. 

The second dynamic apparently at work is turbulence inside the North Korean ruling elite provoked by the poor health of Kim Jong Il. The missile test, after all, represents only the latest in a string of bad behavior on North Korea's part over the last several months. At the end of 2008, Pyongyang walked away from previous understandings it had reached with U.S. negotiators regarding verification of its nuclear declaration. In early 2009, it spewed fiery rhetoric against South Korea and Japan. And in the month before the launch, it ejected U.S. food-donor teams and detained two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee. All these actions are likely external manifestations of political fluidity within Pyongyang sparked by Kim's debility. 

So how do you solve a problem like Korea? Should the United States and its allies just ride out this rough patch in North Korean behavior, hoping to reengage at some later date? Absolutely not -- even though that is what is likely to happen, with Pyongyang once again suffering little more than a slap on the wrist for its actions.

Sunday's launch was a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718 -- passed in the aftermath of North Korea's 2006 nuclear test -- but opposition from China and Russia will probably prevent the Security Council from imposing sanctions. And the United States, bogged down in two wars, will not contemplate military action that could precipitate a third. Far from punishment, in fact, what North Korea's brazen actions will most likely bring is more inconclusive diplomacy. China will use its leverage to press Pyongyang back to the six-party negotiating table, where the North will entertain urgent appeals from others to open a new track of missile negotiations in conjunction with the far from finished denuclearization talks. North Korean negotiators will then string out the new diplomatic track, eliciting goodies from the other parties while giving away little, even as North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear warhead programs slowly advance. 

Given Pyongyang's record of proliferation -- which includes selling nuclear and missile secrets to rogue regimes across the globe -- this cycle of futility has to stop. The stakes for American security are simply too high. Some observers recommend trying to end Kim's nuclear ambitions by offering him a peace treaty and normalized relations with the United States, but such a course would achieve the opposite effect, giving hardliners in Pyongyang a justification for retaining their nuclear weapons while raising fears in Japan about the reliability of Washington's security guarantee. So while Obama should continue to extend the hand of negotiation to Pyongyang, his administration should also embark on two other tracks: in the short-term, calculated pressure to punish Pyongyang's missile launch, and in the longer-term, preparing for a united peninsula, free and democratic. 

First, the United States should enforce Resolution 1718 and reimpose economic sanctions, including financial sanctions to target entities that finance ballistic missile development. These types of sanctions, similar to ones used in 2005 and 2006, hit at the personal riches of the North Korean leadership that are stashed away in accounts in Europe and Asia and can be very effective. They were lifted in 2007 in light of North Korea's agreement to allow international inspection and disablement of its nuclear facility at Yongbyon, but it is time for similar instruments to be put to use again.

Second, Obama should consider restoring North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, using the revelations of Pyongyang's help to Damascus's nuclear program as justification.

Third, he should instruct relevant agencies to start a quiet but serious dialogue with China and South Korea about how to deal with a post-Kim leadership, reaching out (along with Japan) to potential new leaders in Pyongyang by offering them the prospect of security assurances and economic assistance in return for constructive policies.

Fourth, the United States and other countries should offer to educate and feed every North Korean child and dramatically increase humanitarian assistance to the North Korean people in general, including food, medicine, education, and energy. (Some of this could even be tied to stimulus package efforts to employ U.S. workers from Michigan and elsewhere on winterization and house-building projects in North Korea.) 

All these measures can and should supplement the existing six-party diplomacy.  Sustaining the six-party talks is critical for continuing the disablement and degradation of Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities. But U.S. strategy needs to acknowledge that there will never be a true end to the North's nuclear ambitions so long as Kim and his immediate circle remain in power. While negotiating today, therefore, the United States needs to prepare for the real opportunities for engagement that may lie down the road.

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  • VICTOR D. CHA is Associate Professor, Director of Asian Studies, and D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Asian Studies and Government at Georgetown University. From 2004 to 2007, he served as Director of Asian Affairs on the staff of the National Security Council and Deputy Head of the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks.
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