Watch CBSN Live

Facing Down North Korea With Weak Words

This column was written by Jeff Emanuel.

North Korea's recent underground detonation of a nuclear weapon and multiple missile launches, as well as its declaration that the 1953 armistice that effectively ended the Korean war "no longer applies," have presented President Barack Obama with just the sort of "generated international crisis" then-vice presidential nominee Joe Biden promised supporters would come along to "test" the foreign policy neophyte in his first months in office.

Unfortunately, the statements and actions Obama has taken so far in response to the communist state's latest series of provocations suggest he has little idea how to deal with such a situation - particularly when appealing to the United Nations and issuing sternly-worded warnings he has no intention of backing up with effective action fail to solve the problem.

As President Obama is hopefully beginning to learn, neither stern words, nor pleas, nor concessions are particularly effective problem-solving tactics in the real world. Whether this lesson will sink in deeply enough to cause the rigidly ideological Democratic executive to change his approach to foreign belligerence, though, is another question altogether.

A Series of Provocations
On the same day in April that President Obama was in Prague giving a speech on international disarmament, North Korea test-fired a multi-stage missile, the Taepodong-2, over the Pacific Ocean. In going through with this test firing of a missile capable of being armed with a nuclear warhead and of reaching the western United States, the communist state ignored a prior warning from the U.S. president that doing so would be "provocative" - an admonition which, as Obama is hopefully learning, carries far less weight with rogue regimes than with those states that still honor such quaint traditions as diplomatic niceties and international agreements.

Though its only immediate effect was to demonstrate Obama's impotence when it comes to actually preventing a foreign actor from carrying out preannounced unlawful activities, at least the U.S. knew about the impending missile launch before it took place. The same cannot be said about North Korea's May 25 nuclear weapons test, which took the Obama administration entirely by surprise.

The rogue regime's second detonation of a nuclear device in three years, this explosion was fully four times the size of the 2006 nuclear blast according to seismic readings, showing progress by the North Koreans in solving the problems the weapons program faced three years ago. That previous detonation was met with swift action by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which issued two unanimous resolutions condemning the rogue regime and calling for tighter sanctions against it. Unfortunately, the Bush administration quickly took the teeth out of that action by resuming shipments of aid and even removing the rogue nation from its State Sponsors of Terrorism list for no reason other than its desire to lure Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.

President Obama's response to date to the 2009 nuclear detonation has been similarly disheartening. Monday's nuclear test was a clear violation not only of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions and international agreements, but of Obama's own repeated pleas for nuclear members of the international community to divest themselves of their arsenals and join him in pursuit of his vision of "a world without nuclear weapons." (If nothing else, this should send a clear sign to the American people that simply changing personalities in the White House cannot eliminate global security threats or to cause the international community to live in harmony.)

Following Monday's nuclear test, Obama declared that North Korea's actions were "directly and recklessly challenging the international community," and that "such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea's isolation." Susan Rice, Obama's ambassador to the UN, echoed the president's admonition, saying Pyongyang will "pay a price for the path that they're on if they don't reverse."

However, the inexperienced president and his administration appear reluctant to go any farther than issuing sternly-worded admonitions to the rogue state, as he has given no indication as yet of any willingness to rescind his standing offer to restart the six-party talks - let alone take such a drastic step as to cut off the shipments of food and energy aid (of which the U.S. remains the largest donor) being sent to the destitute, famine-ridden state.

A Position of Weakness
Rather than toughen its stance in response to North Korea's continued persistence in honing its nuclear device and delivery technology, the Obama administration appears willing to offer the rogue state two major concessions, one direct and one indirect, regardless of its actions.
The direct concession is a resumption of the six-party talks, a diplomatic tool which, when active, has brought North Korea to the negotiating table like a civilized nation to negotiate a reduction in its nuclear activities with Russia, China, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan in exchange for increased aid and more normalized diplomatic relations.

This is a concession the Obama administration appears determined to make, despite the fact that North Korea has a history of neglecting to live up to the promises it has made within the framework of the six-party talks (instead soaking up all the aid it can get before pulling away and resuming its illicit nuclear and conventional activities). In the run-up to the Taepodong-2 launch in April, Stephen Bosworth, a full-time academic who moonlights as Obama's special representative for North Korea policy, made it known that the DPRK's impending launch would have no bearing on the U.S.'s willingness to restart the talks. Once the "dust from the missiles settles," he declared, America would be back at the negotiating table, where it would be ready and willing to discuss further concessions to, and benefits for, a North Korea that had failed once again to earn them.

The indirect concession the Obama administration is making comes in the form of its rapid scrapping of a functional missile defense system into which so many resources, both temporal and monetary, were poured over the last decade. As Pyongyang perfects a warhead delivery vehicle capable of reaching the American homeland, and as nations like Iran take aim with shorter-range missiles at U.S. interests and allies abroad, the White House and Pentagon are working hand-in-hand to fulfill the dovish executive's campaign promise to cut off investment in a defensive technology whose necessity is likely to become more apparent in the very near future.

At what point Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will recognize that non-state actors like al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are not the only threat the U.S. will face in the near future is an open question, and one to which we can only hope the answer is "before it's too late."

Combating Illicit Proliferation
U.S. ally South Korea responded to Pyongyang's nuclear test by announcing its decision to join the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a Bush-era program established to coordinate a worldwide effort to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The PSI, in which 90 nations now take part, is the brainchild of John Bolton, the former U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. The highest-profile tool used by PSI-supporting nations to prevent proliferation is shipment interdiction, often conducted by boarding ships suspected of carrying WMD materials or forcing them into friendly port for inspection - a tactic that has been used against North Korean ships in the past, and which in 2003 directly led to the unraveling of the largest nuclear black market ever discovered: that of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan.

Pyongyang has long warned South Korea that a decision by the latter to join the PSI would be tantamount to an act of war. Not coincidentally, the DPRK responded to Seoul's announcement by firing short-range rockets - one surface-to-ship, one surface-to-air - into the Sea of Japan (or the "Eastern Sea," as the Koreans refer to it), a clear warning that its past threats should not be forgotten. That action has, of course, been accompanied by heightened rhetoric (including a declaration that the 1953 armistice "no longer applied") aimed at reminding Seoul of the danger that exists mere miles to its north, and of convincing leaders of the free Korea to walk back their efforts to pressure the rogue regime.

An increase in counter-proliferation activities in its immediate region is a cause for concern for Pyongyang, given its reliance on black market weapons and technology sales for income and its recent history of exporting nuclear technology (as recently seen in the nuclear reactor complex in Syria, which was built with North Korean assistance and destroyed by Israeli aircraft in 2007).

Further action to prevent North Korea from aiding other states and non-state actors in their pursuit of nuclear weapons is necessary to maintain some semblance of international stability and domestic security. However, as (or if) steps are taken to that effect, Pyongyang will certainly ratchet up its threatening rhetoric and activities - something that will make President Obama's position incredibly uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, if Obama's response to Pyongyang's recent missile and nuclear tests are any indication, the administration's answer to such aggression will be to dial back the pressure, rather than to keep the heat on the rogue state to comply with international will.

The U.S. currently has 30,000 soldiers and airmen stationed in South Korea as a guarantor of American military intervention should Pyongyang decide to withdraw from the 1953 armistice and resume open war with the South. Should the Democratic People's Republic of Korea continue ratcheting up its level of belligerence in response to Obama's efforts to placate the rogue regime, the foreign policy neophyte currently serving as Commander in Chief of the U.S. military will have some very difficult decisions to make.

Jeff Emanuel, a special operations military veteran, is a columnist, a combat journalist, and a director emeritus of conservative weblog He was stationed in Uijongbu, Republic of Korea in 2002.

By Jeffrey P. Emanuel

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue