Responding to North Korea: U.S. Leans on Asian Allies

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KCNA / Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il

Kim Jong Il's four-month display of mounting belligerence has succeeded in one respect: the notoriously unpredictable North Korean leader has got Washington very worried. Already concerned that Kim was embroiled in a dangerous succession dance and behaving more combatively than ever, the Obama Administration has watched nervously as the ailing leader has abrogated the North's armistice with the South, launched multiple missiles, tested a nuclear device and kidnapped two U.S. journalists. Washington is no longer convinced that Kim is simply seeking Western attention and concessions; U.S. officials believe he may, in fact, be embarking on a new strategic path.

That fear prompted a group of top Obama Administration officials to travel to Northeast Asia last week for emergency diplomatic consultations with allies and major powers. Led by Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and including top officials from the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the Treasury Department, the U.S. team traveled to Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing in pursuit of two objectives: building support for a tougher United Nations Security Council sanctions resolution on North Korea, and beginning discussions with the three countries over what actions would be necessary if North Korea has made a strategic decision to abandon negotiations and establish itself as a permanent nuclear power. The North has long had the ability to produce fuel for nuclear weapons, but it now seems intent on gaining the capability to miniaturize them and mount them on missiles. The U.S. team had little luck on sanctions, but it managed a start on the question of North Korea's nuclear intentions. (See pictures of North Koreans at the polls.)

"We're in potentially a different place now with North Korea," says a senior Administration official. "And we felt we needed to talk with our allies in the region because these last events and continued talk [from Pyongyang] of efforts to develop an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] as well as efforts to proceed with a weaponized, miniature nuclear warhead seem no longer about making noise in order to extract concessions but the embarking on a different path." In addition to pushing for tougher U.N. sanctions now, the U.S. team discussed the "aggressive defensive posture" that Washington and its allies would need to take if Pyongyang has decided to remain a nuclear power.

The Japanese and South Korean stops were designed to reassure U.S. allies of Washington's firm commitment to their security. "The South Koreans wanted the reassurances they heard," says the senior Administration official. "There's serious angst, but the South Koreans are well-positioned in terms of their defense. That's taken care of."

The Japanese subtly raised the issue of what a nuclear-armed North Korea might mean for their own military posture. Tokyo did not assert that it would pursue nuclear capability of its own — Japan already has a peaceful nuclear program, which it is considered capable of rapidly transforming to produce nuclear weapons if it chooses to do so. Nor did Tokyo say it might take a more aggressive posture toward North Korea. But the Japanese pointed out that there is already an increasing public discussion there about the potential need for both measures, and they told the visiting U.S. diplomats that "as North Korea goes down this path, it is leading to new discussions about what is necessary for Japan's defense," the senior American official says.

If there is hope of steering the North off its current path, the key role will fall to China, which holds Pyongyang's purse strings. In Beijing, the U.S. diplomats first pushed for more Chinese support for a U.N. resolution sanctioning North Korea, but the senior Administration official admits that progress was slow. "There are limits to how far you can go at the U.N.," the official says. "We're looking for an incremental ratcheting and tightening of the grip, and we realize there's a delicate balance." Also on the trip was Under Secretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey, the hard-line architect of tough banking and credit sanctions against Iran and North Korea under George W. Bush.

The other agenda item was to begin discussing with the Chinese what might follow from the North's abandonment of negotiations. "It's only prudent to be looking at what might come of this," the senior Administration official says. The focus was on the kind of "aggressive defensive posture" that might be needed if the North attempts to become a permanent nuclear power. That posture would include measures designed to ensure "that the North can't further develop their technologies or, worse yet, export their technologies," says the senior Administration official. The U.S. has an active but imperfect interdiction effort in the seas around North Korea.

While the Chinese are worried about the latest developments in Pyongyang, they also, as always, fear the prospect of war on the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. argues that war is more likely if the North is allowed to pursue nuclear weapons — an argument that hasn't gotten the U.S. very far in the past. Now Washington wants to "begin a process to sort out what would come next," says the senior U.S. official. One thing the Administration is impressing on U.S. allies is that whatever negotiations with the North it manages to restart will be on different terms. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the U.S. won't buy the same horse twice.

As for what is motivating Kim Jong Il, no one in Washington or abroad seems to know. One school of thought holds that in the wake of his stroke and feeling unsettled about the prospects for succession, he needs to make a show of strength in the hope of consolidating power and solidifying the chance that Kim Jong Un, his son and heir apparent, will take over from him. Another line of thinking holds that the North is drawing conclusions from the examples of Iraq and Iran, seeing that the former was invaded for pursuing nuclear weapons, while the latter, further along in its pursuit of them, is seemingly impervious to diplomatic pressure. Neither of which gives Washington much hope of avoiding the "aggressive defensive posture" the North's new belligerence seems to be necessitating.

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