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You wouldn’t know it from the Obama administration, but North Korea’s global threat continues to metastasize. South Korea recently concluded that extensive cyber-attacks against civilian and military targets in the South emanated from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Following China’s lead in information warfare, the North is creating yet another asymmetric military capability it can deploy against its adversaries and also peddle for hard currency to other rogue states and terrorists.
Although Pyongyang limited its targeting of this particular sortie to South Korea, the potential cyberwarfare battlefield is global and includes the United States, which already is the subject of extensive cyberprobing, exploitation and espionage by China. For a country perennially on the brink of starvation, North Korea’s military foray into cyberspace demonstrates its continuing malevolence.
The DPRK’s nuclear-weapons program has not rested on its laurels, either, with widely observed surface-level preparations for a possible third underground test well under way.
The North’s development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear payloads is also advancing apace, as Russian missile designer Yuri Solomonov highlighted last month in a Kommersant interview. This is hardly surprisingly given Iran’s increasing long-range capabilities, the extensive Tehran-Pyongyang collaboration, and their programs’ common base in Soviet-era Scud missile technology.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan has released documents purportedly showing prior North Korean bribery of senior Islamabad officials to grease the transfer of nuclear or ballistic-missile technology. While their authenticity is disputed, the documents are part of Mr. Khan’s continuing campaign to prove he did not act solo in the world’s illicit nuclear-weapons bazaar.
He long ago admitted supplying North Korea and Iran with critical nuclear technology. Pyongyang’s unveiling in November of impressive new uranium-enrichment facilities at Yongbyon and recent construction there show the continuing fruits of Mr. Khan’s entrepreneurship. His documents – and the many others he undoubtedly has in a shoebox somewhere – are worth verifying and actually might help Islamabad and Washington work together to repair their fractured relationship and prevent China from exploiting their current differences.
Clearly, North Korea’s weapons programs are not decelerating even amid intensive preparations for a possible transition of power, following Kim Jong-il’s death, to a third member of the communist Kim dynasty. But faced with these challenges, the Obama administration has been not only publicly silent but essentially passive both diplomatically and intellectually. Only the Pentagon and the intelligence community, fortunately still implementing the Proliferation Security Initiative, have done much beyond noting pro forma that the troublemaking DPRK is still at it.
Public silence is not necessarily inappropriate, although the failure to comment on a wide range of global threats posed by U.S. adversaries is par for the course under President Obama. Based on presidential attention levels, one would think Iran’s nuclear-weapons program was withering away, Russia’s active military penetration of the Arctic was of merely scientific interest, and China’s aggressive territorial claims in East Asia were mere legal technicalities to be resolved by low-level functionaries.
Far more dangerous than mere silence, of course, is the manifest absence of a behind-the-scenes determination to stop the North’s nuclear-weapons and missile programs (not to mention the other threats detailed above and many more). Mr. Obama’s deliberate silence and near-palpable lack of interest have helped drive North Korea into media obscurity while simultaneously symbolizing our failure to contain – let alone eliminate – the DPRK’s threat.
Through the “strategic patience” policy, the president has at least not been scurrying to revive the failed Six-Party Talks or willfully denying the North’s weapons-related progress, as many did in the George W. Bush administration’s final years. But however politically self-satisfying “not Bush” might be, strategic patience is a thoroughly inadequate response to North Korea and has been from its inception.
A real strategy, which we need much sooner than later, would require understanding that the DPRK and Iranian threats, including cyberwarfare, are two sides of the same coin, not unrelated outbreaks of nuclear contagion. The United States must take both seriously, reversing our present course of ignoring both.
Waiting passively for a third DPRK nuclear test is unacceptable, although that might be the only event to motivate Mr. Obama to pay at least lip service to combating Pyongyang’s continuing threat. By removing the public spotlight from the North – and its customers and suppliers – his administration has made it easier to evade existing sanctions and harder to impose new constraints absent another attention-riveting underground test. Moreover, Seoul is keenly aware of the North’s impending succession crisis and is likely prepared to take a much tougher line than in recent years.
At a minimum, therefore, we must press China and Russia far harder to quarantine North Korea’s trafficking in nuclear and missile technologies and materials. Unfortunately, the administration’s startling passivity means missing opportunities, which we will all regret very soon.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.
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