North Korea’s first successful rocket launch is a truly dangerous development. Although the North Koreans have previously detonated two nuclear devices, until now, they have not demonstrated any ability to deliver them. Weaponising a missile is hard, but Pyongyang’s close ally Iran has made great advances in miniaturising warheads. With the combination of North Korea’s nuclear bombs and Iran’s technology, a nuclear-tipped missile could be capable of striking the West Coast of the US in the near future. The US can no longer afford to ignore North Korea. It is important to ask why North Korea launched the rocket now. A look at three target audiences provides clues — the North Korean people, the South Korean people and the US government. The North Korean leadership had been promising its citizens for years that the country would become “strong and prosperous” by 2012, the 100th anniversary of founding leader Kim Il Sung’s birth. This was more crucial after the very public failed missile test last April became a source of national shame. Last week’s successful launch produced euphoria and intense pride and fortified the authority of Kim Jong-Un one year into his reign. The second audience is the South Korean people. From across the heavily fortified demilitarised zone between the two Koreas, the North’s missile test was a ham-handed effort to interfere in the South’s presidential election on Wednesday. However, this attempted meddling will most likely backfire. Although the two candidates have expressed their commitment to improving inter-Korean relations, North Korea has criticised Park Geun-hye, candidate of the ruling conservative New Frontier Party and daughter of former president Park Chung-hee. Pyongyang seems to be sending the message that inter-Korean relations will remain as tumultuous as they have been over the last five years if another conservative candidate is elected. The third audience is Washington.
For more than 40 years, Pyongyang has been using military adventurism to try to get America’s attention. This began with the seizure of the Pueblo, a US naval intelligence ship, in international waters in 1968. The US response was to negotiate to recover the 81 surviving crew members and, in the process, sign an apology for committing espionage. The lesson the North took from that episode was that provocative action gets attention — a message reinforced when the US ignored North Korea’s repeated efforts in the 1970s to replace the Korean War armistice with a permanent peace treaty. As convoluted as this may seem, North Korea’s missile launch last week might just be a signal to President Obama — who will have more flexibility in his second term — to restart diplomacy. After all, when Obama was first campaigning for the presidency, engaging enemies was a central element of his foreign policy platform. If this missile test was a cry for attention, then attention must be paid.
Rallying the region, which has equal or greater cause for concern, is important, but bilateral diplomacy can achieve a breakthrough. The six-party framework has not been successful for one important reason: North Korea has historical grievances with each of the other five members. From the North Korean perspective, therefore, it is akin to five schoolyard bullies meeting with a former victim to persuade him to give up his one deterrent. The US has called for “consequences,” though the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said we would wait and assess action by the UN Security Council, which condemned the launch as a “highly provocative act that threatens regional security”. Despite existing sanctions, North Korea, probably with Iran’s assistance, continues to make technological advances. It is time for Washington to try a new approach. Instead of talk of consequences, the US should talk about reengagement and what it will take for North Korea to be welcomed as part of a vibrant Asian region. Here is why the timing is right to restart bilateral diplomacy: The leadership changes in China and Japan; the upcoming elections in South Korea, which can lead to a reset in Pyongyang’s relations with Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing; the US rebalance to Asia, which is reinforcing relations with North Korea’s neighbours; and the need to address the cataclysmic danger in the region — given the cooperation between Pyongyang and Tehran. Justifying his policy of engagement with North Korea in the early 1970s, the late South Korean president, Park Chung-hee, had suggested that “dialogue is needed because no matter how much you hate the other side, you know whether they will attack or not if you’re holding their hand”. Nothing else — especially the US administration’s policy of “strategic patience” — has worked and the threat is only growing.
Jane Harman is director, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars. She was a nine-term congresswoman from California. James Person is coordinator of the centre’s North Korea International Documentation Project.