Crafting a Collective Response

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Emerging from a hastily called U.N. Security Council session on North Korea's nuclear test, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton sounded oddly optimistic. "I was very impressed by the unanimity of the council," Bolton told reporters, "... on the need for a strong and swift answer to what everyone agreed amounted to a threat to international peace and security."

Bolton's almost cheerful description of what he called a "remarkable" Security Council session reflected a surprising reality — the North Korean nuclear test may actually be a boon to the U.S.' long-frustrated efforts to achieve consensus on how to deal with Pyongyang. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has done her best to leave behind the Bush Administration's go-it-alone cowboy diplomacy of the first term and build real international coalitions, but until the test she had no success convincing China and South Korea, the North's primary trading partners, to leverage their economic relationships into serious pressure to back away from its nuclear buildup.

"I think there has been a lot of wishful thinking in the region. There was a tendency to think that North Korea was not a nuclear weapons state," says John Pike, a weapons expert with Global Security.org. "It's sort of a blowback from Iraq. People have overcompensated on Iraq, and so now the standard of proof is, I'm not going to assess anybody as having something that has not been demonstrated unambiguously." Now that there is no such ambiguity, it should make it easier to bring China and South Korea into alignment with the U.S. and Japan and coordinate a strategy to contain the regime.

But notwithstanding John Bolton's smile, there may still be limits to how much unanimity the U.S. can achieve on North Korea. Some of the same calculations that the North Koreans likely made in choosing to test their nuke now may well protect them now from any kind of harsh international response. "They see the international community has its hands full with Iraq and Iran. They recognize they're at the apex of South Korean softness towards the North. The next election in about a year will probably lead to a more conservative South Korean government. They calculate that China is not going to let them collapse, " notes Michael J. Green, who handled Asian affairs for the Bush White House National Security Council (NSC) until December 2005 and is now senior advisor at the Center for International and Strategic Studies.

And they may be right. As angry and concerned as they may be about the test, Beijing and Seoul will likely remain a lot more worried about the collapse of the Pyongyang regime and chaos on their borders than about the murky state of the North's weapons programs. "The challenge for the administration is, can they get China to do enough?" asks Green. "The Chinese donít want to go so far they create a whole another nightmare for themselves with North Korea falling apart." Pike thinks China won't take the risk. "That's why we're not going to get anything beyond words out of the Security Council," he says.

At the same time, it's highly unlikely that the U.S. will launch a tough unilateral action such as a U.S. naval blockade of North Korea since that would only create more divisions between the U.S. and its partners. "If the U.S. started doing anything that looked like it ran the risk of military confrontation the current government of South Korea would drop-kick us out of the country," Pike points out.

Gary Samore, a Clinton Administration NSC proliferation expert who is now director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, contends that subjecting the North Koreans to financial stress and a naval blockade would only make matters worse. The North could retaliate, he says, by "stirring up trouble in the Sea of Japan or sending patrols into the DMZ... If things really got out of hand, you'd have increased military alerts and clashes on the Korean peninsula that would cause jitters in Seoul. And there's always a danger that these things will get pretty hairy." To China, Japan and South Korea, if not the U.S. itself, that possibility, no matter how remote, is even more scary than an underground nuclear test.