North Korea’s Missile

Posted April 22, 2009, at 7:25 p.m.

The best advice on how to think about North Korea’s launch of a missile has come from Ambassador Stephen W. Bosworth, President Obama’s new special representative for North Korean policy: Keep cool, even though North Korea reacted to criticism by declaring the six-nation talks ended and kicking out the international inspectors.

He was cooler than the president, who was awakened in Prague at 4:30 a.m. with the news, declared that “violations must be punished” and called for an immediate resolution by the United Nations Security Council. Mr. Obama may have recalled the campaign flap over who would do best when the telephone rang at 3 a.m.

Mr. Bosworth did call the launch a provocation, since it had been prohibited by the U.N., and said there must be “some consequences.” But he also said, “We must deal with North Korea as we find it not as we would like it to be. What is required is patience and perseverance.” He advocated a combination of pressure and incentives and suggested further bilateral talks with North Korea. He has been dealing with North Korea for 15 years and knows that there are occasions when “everything just stops for a time.”

Another old North Korea hand, Selig Harrison, a summer Maine resident who returned in January from a visit to the country, also takes the long view. He said in a television interview that North Korean officials have changed their whole strategy and now want normalized relations as a precondition for denuclearization. He said they fear a U.S. attack and want to have a nuclear deterrent until they can feel safe and then would discuss nuclear disarmament. Mr. Harrison described North Korea as “a poor struggling, pathetic country, a country to be pitied than to be feared.” He said they need normal relations “but they’re afraid we’re going to do them in first with a nuclear preemptive strike.”

Preemptive warfare was the perceived policy of the Bush administration.

Economic pressure against Pyongyang has never worked. Neither have veiled threats of armed attack or U.N. declarations. What did work for a time were the Clinton administration’s negotiated “framework” for a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in 1994 and the step-by-step concessions agreed to in the Beijing talks.

With a cool head like Ambassador Bosworth in charge, and with the possibility of bilateral talks until six-nation diplomacy can get back on track, we can hope to keep Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program capped at its present four or five weapons and move toward a denuclearized peninsula and an end at long last of the half-century-old Korean war.

North Korea is still far short of a military threat to the United States. It is often erratic, but it is not suicidal. The best hope is that practical, prudent diplomacy can show that both countries would benefit from normalized relations and relief from mutual fear.

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