President Obama’s recent trip to South Korea may have gained attention for his “open mic” slipup with outgoing Russian President Medvedev over missile defense, but that’s just a media distraction from the importance of Obama’s visit to the Korean peninsula. After Kim Jong Il’s death in December, the U.S. took an early lead in negotiations with North Korea – doing so because Obama and his team thought it could be an easy diplomatic win. With the promise of aid and food, the U.S. could let new leader Kim Jong-un quietly drop the consistently belligerent stance the country has taken in what passes for its foreign policy.
It’s now clear that easy win is not going to happen. Despite Kim’s titular status, we still don’t really know who is in charge in North Korea. While there have been no major coups, protests, or blowups, there have been plenty of smaller events, like military executions due to insubordination, that point to a high likelihood of purges happening in the regime. Now factor in that North Korea has gotten decidedly more, rather than less, militant on the nuclear arms front. Its announcement of a satellite test is a thinly veiled attempt to launch a long-range ICBM. The global community is perceiving it as such – with South Korea threatening to shoot the missile down. The vitriol coming out of the North Korean propaganda machine is as hardline and aggressive as we’ve seen in many years.
Several months into the Kim Jong-un regime, there’s little cause for optimism. There’s much cause to be on heightened alert, though, because other than belligerent press releases, the new regime has not shown any ability to deliver on its promises. The South Koreans recently held live-fire exercises on five islands near the disputed Yellow Sea boundary with North Korea; their angry neighbors, despite loudly promising a response, did nothing. As much as we can be glad there was no international incident as a result, it’s not a good sign if the reason the North Koreans didn’t follow through on their threats was that the Kim Jong-un regime was unable to control the military well enough to direct it to do so. The regime change, in other words, has not yet stabilized.
There are two countries right now – China and the United States – that could contain North Korea, which remains among the poorest and most totalitarian countries in the world. China, in the middle of its own transition of power, which has been peaceful but not without intrigue, hardly has the capacity to fully engage on North Korea. Obama has learned that there is no quick win to be had in North Korea – and if he is telling the Russians he doesn’t want to deal with issues surrounding missile bases before the November election, we can imagine he has no desire whatsoever to contend with an entire rogue country, especially one as bizarre as North Korea.
While the U.S. would love China to step up here, that’s not going to happen. As has been said, a good analogy would be that China would sure like it if the U.S. could step up on Iran already. To put it simply, what everyone would most like is for North Korea to stay quiet for much of the next year. That way China can get its transition under way, and Obama and the Republican nominee can talk tough on North Korea without actually having to do anything about it.