Once more into the North Korean breach

Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presides over a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang March 31, 2013 in this picture released by the North's official KCNA news agency on April 1, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • News now comes out that the Obama administration held secret talks last month in New York with North Korea

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  • We never respond as we should to North Korean provocations

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Athens — Even here in Europe, crippled by debt and economic malaise, there is deep interest in just how crazy North Korea is. Maybe not having to deal regularly with the Dali-esque surrealism of Pyongyang makes the Europeans that more engaged as spectators. Too bad Washington has yet to figure out that buying a melting watch draped over a stunted tree means that you won’t have a timepiece worth a sou. 

As the latest episode of the “will they or won’t they” war-themed reality show that is North Korea drags into a second (or is it third) week, news now comes out that the Obama administration held secret talks last month in New York (without informing Japan, apparently), and the result was all too predictable: a month of North Korean threats to launch a game of global thermonuclear war. Apparently the important message the administration wanted to pass along to Pyongyang was “don’t be provocative.” Which is a bit like telling a shark not to eat that bloody chum floating peacefully in the water. 

At this point, the diplomatic farce with North Korea is good only for us to sit back and marvel at the regularity with which the hermit regime manages to tweak our tail. A world filled with economic uncertainty and fears of terrorism could use this reassuring old-fashioned “we will rain a storm of fire upon your house” madness from North Korea. We never respond as we should, which is to dare them to shoot off a missile, and then answer by trying to knock it out of the sky or spending a few million borrowed dollars on fostering instability inside the country so as to embolden what opposition forces may be hiding about. But at this point, who really cares? North Korea’s threats of regional (or global) war are a quaint reminder of a time when we could better predict just how dangerous the world is. 

And if the Obama administration, in its wisdom, wants to pretend there is a snowball’s chance of returning to meaningful denuclearization talks, let alone the remotest possibility of actual denuclearization of North Korea, then who are we to prevent it from wasting another four years? It would be too easy to admit that North Korea is a functional nuclear state, and should be treated as such. That would create instant unemployment for the diplomats who have spent two decades wasting time talking with a regime that uses a different operating system from the rest of us. 

Of course, that may mean that one day we wake up to a North Korea with a nuclear weapon on top of a long-range ballistic missile. But since they only will have one or five, and we have thousands (well, hundreds, if President Obama has his way), then there’s really little to worry about. Plus we’ll have the moral satisfaction of knowing we spent thousands of man-hours around cramped tables with canny Pyongyang counterparts who ran diplomatic rings around us. Hopefully, we’ll have the same luck protecting our allies that we did in helping North Korea defy our will all these years. 

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About the Author

 

Michael
Auslin
  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.


    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on wsj.com. His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.


    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.


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