The curtain is about to rise again on the long-running nuclear tragicomedy, “North Korea Outwits the United States.” Despite Kim Jong Il’s explicit threats of another nuclear test, U.S. Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth said last week that the Obama administration is “relatively relaxed” and that “there is not a sense of crisis.” They’re certainly smiling in Pyongyang.
In October 2006, North Korea witnessed the incredible diplomatic success it could reap from belligerence. Its first nuclear test brought resumption of the six-party talks, which gave Kim Jong Il cover to further advance his nuclear program.
Now, Kim is poised to succeed again by following precisely the same script. In April, Pyongyang launched a Taepodong-2 missile, and National Security Council official Gary Samore recently confirmed that a second nuclear test is likely on the way. The North is set to try two U.S. reporters for “hostile acts.” The state-controlled newspaper calls America “a rogue and a gangster.” Kim recently expelled international monitors from the Yongbyon nuclear complex. And Pyongyang threatens to “start” enriching uranium–a capacity it procured long ago.
If the next nuclear explosion doesn’t derail the six-party talks, Kim will rightly conclude that he faces no real danger of ever having to dismantle his weapons program.
A second nuclear test is by no means simply a propaganda ploy. Most experts believe that the 2006 test was flawed, producing an explosive yield well below even what the North’s scientists had predicted. The scientific and military imperatives for a second test have been strong for over two years, and the potential data, experience and other advantages of further testing would be tremendous.
What the North has lacked thus far is the political opportunity to test without fatally jeopardizing its access to the six-party talks and the legitimacy they provide. Despite the State Department’s seemingly unbreakable second-term hold over President Bush, another test after 2006 just might have ended the talks.
So far, the North faces no such threat from the Obama administration. Despite Pyongyang’s aggression, Mr. Bosworth has reiterated that the U.S. is “committed to dialogue” and is “obviously interested in returning to a negotiating table as soon as we can.” This is precisely what the North wants: America in a conciliatory mode, eager to bargain, just as Mr. Bush was after the 2006 test.
If the next nuclear explosion doesn’t derail the six-party talks, Kim will rightly conclude that he faces no real danger of ever having to dismantle his weapons program. North Korea is a mysterious place, but there is no mystery about its foreign-policy tactics: They work. The real mystery is why our administrations–Republican and Democratic–haven’t learned that their quasi-religious faith in the six-party talks is misplaced.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently rejected “linkage” in Russia policy as “old thinking.” Disagreement in one area, she argued, shouldn’t prevent working on “something else that is of overwhelming importance.” Whatever the merits of linkage vis-à-vis Russia, de-linking a second North Korean nuclear test from the six-party talks simply hands Pyongyang permission to proceed.
Even worse, Iran and other aspiring nuclear proliferators will draw precisely the same conclusion: Negotiations like the six-party talks are a charade and reflect a continuing collapse of American resolve. U.S. acquiescence in a second North Korean nuclear test will likely mean that Tehran will adopt Pyongyang’s successful strategy.
It’s time for the Obama administration to finally put down Kim Jong Il’s script. If not, we better get ready for Iran–and others–to go nuclear.