No Crisis for North Korea

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

NORTH KOREA's detonation of a nuclear warhead in an underground test yesterday is, of course, cause for serious concern -- particularly as the blast appears to have been considerably larger than the regime's first test nearly three years ago. It is certainly cause for swift action by the U.N. Security Council, which issued a statement condemning Pyongyang's blatant violations of previous council resolutions, and promised to prepare yet another resolution -- though, as always, the prospect that truly tough sanctions will be adopted is not bright.

What Kim Jong Il's latest provocation should not cause, however, is the response he is seeking: a rush by the Obama administration to lavish attention on his regime and offer it economic and political favors. That approach has already been tried by two U.S. administrations, which handed Pyongyang a string of bribes in exchange for ceasing its provocations, suspending its nuclear activities and entering negotiations. In each case, the North failed to fulfill its commitments and eventually returned to producing weapons and testing missiles.

It's time, at last, to break this pattern and call Mr. Kim's bluff. That doesn't mean threats of U.S military action or a blanket refusal to talk with the regime; those tactics have been tried and have failed as well. Instead, Mr. Obama should simply decline to treat North Korea as a crisis, or even as a matter of urgency. The United States should press for the toughest sanctions it can extract from the Security Council and ratchet up its own measures, including a renewed squeeze on the regime's access to the international financial system. It should seek greater support from South Korea, China and other nations to block the North's attempts to export missiles or nuclear materials, and to help refugees fleeing the regime. It should stand ready to resume the "six-party" talks with North Korea sponsored by China and to engage in separate, low-level bilateral discussions if they offer the hope of progress.

There should, however, be no new economic favors to the North, no further political recognition, no grand visits by the secretary of state to Pyongyang. Mr. Kim, who is 67 and ailing, and who appears to be attempting to shore up his authority so as to hand it to one of his sons, should get nothing to help him with that project. Instead, to the extent possible, his regime should be undramatically but methodically strangled by sanctions -- and any easing should be linked to concrete steps by the North. A starting point must be the release of two American journalists whom Mr. Kim is holding hostage and threatening to put on trial next week. "Such provocations," Mr. Obama said of the nuclear test, "will only serve to deepen North Korea's isolation." U.S. policy should aim at ensuring that this prediction proves true.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company