The Obama Administration's Confused Response to the North Korea Missile Test

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

THE DEFINING characteristic of U.S. policy toward North Korea -- incoherence -- doesn't seem to have changed much as the Bush administration has given way to that of Barack Obama. On Sunday, Mr. Obama treated North Korea's launch of an intercontinental missile like an emergency: Woken in Prague at 4:30 a.m. by his aides, he sternly declared that "rules must be binding" and "violations must be punished," and dispatched his U.N. ambassador to seek an immediate resolution from the Security Council.

The council, however, quickly balked at sanctioning the regime of Kim Jong Il -- and understandably so. Just two days before the much-expected missile test, Mr. Obama's special envoy for North Korea, Stephen W. Bosworth, had publicly declared that "pressure is not the most productive line of approach" in dealing with the North. "After the dust of the missile settles a bit," he said, the administration's priority would be persuading Pyongyang to return to negotiations regarding its nuclear program.

Mr. Bosworth offered to go to Pyongyang "whenever it appears to be useful" to conduct bilateral talks -- something the regime has always craved. And he promised "incentives": "I think there are things that we can provide and do that the North Koreans would find positive," he told reporters.

Now, it's true that Mr. Bosworth said he thought there also should be "consequences" for the missile test and that U.S. policy should "combine pressure with incentives." But it's hardly surprising, given his statements, that China and Russia would resist new sanctions -- or that North Korea would have fired the missile in spite of U.S. warnings. Why listen to such warnings, when the administration has already made clear that its main response will be to offer more diplomatic attention, sweetened with "incentives" -- in other words, exactly what Mr. Kim was seeking?

The Bush administration tried isolating and pressuring North Korea, then turned to bribe-laden negotiations. Neither approach succeeded in changing the behavior of the regime, which continued to share its nuclear know-how with other rogue states while retaining its probable arsenal of bombs. Mr. Bosworth sounds surprisingly sure that he can break this pattern. "I'm quite confident that with some intense negotiating and diplomatic activity," North Korea's refusal to allow the verification of its plutonium stockpile can be overcome, he said.

Mr. Obama seems to believe that he can increase the pressure on Pyongyang through the reinvigorated global nonproliferation policy he announced in Prague. The measures he proposed are worthy and needed -- such as a new effort to control loose nuclear materials, a ban on the creation of new fissile material for weapons and the creation of an international fuel bank to supply nuclear reactors.

Still, it doesn't seem likely that either the North Korean or Iranian regimes will be swayed by these policies. Such concessions as have been extracted from Mr. Kim in the past have followed tough steps by the United States and China, above all the squeezing of the regime's foreign bank accounts. It's hard to believe that the Obama administration will make more progress than its predecessors without more consistency in administering that kind of medicine.

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