The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, June 1, 2009

Swinging the Hammer with Leverage

Patience and Cooperation, Not Force and Hostile Words, Are What Will Force North Korea Back Under Control

In Pyongyang North Korea, one can find a huge circular white stone edifice, known as the Korean Workers’ Party Monument. Three huge hands rise upward from a flat disc containing various implements. Two hands hold a hammer and sickle respectively, traditional symbols of Soviet communism. The third hand unexpectedly holds a writing brush. It is an attempt to symbolize North Korea communism as binding all people together – farmers and factory workers along with scholars and intellectuals.

The hammer is a particularly evocative symbol. It can be both tool and weapon of destruction, used to tear down as easily as it is to build. Whatever its intended purpose, a hammer achieves its objective by the issue of blunt force.

In many ways, a hammer is an appropriate symbol for U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. As one of the world’s great economic and military superpowers, we have done much to build up crumbling national infrastructures around the globe. Where rouge regimes and aggressor nations are concerned, our response has been blunt and forceful.

Yet, as any carpenter knows, an effective hammer swing depends less on the might of the person wielding it and more on superior leverage. This means relaxing one’s grip down the handle and away from the head. Often the U.S. has insisted on swinging the hammer alone or gripping it closest to the head.

Such technique is not only tiring by punishing. After all, the hammer absorbs far more blows than any one nail and the constant pounding over time tends to extract its toll.

The recent provocations by North Korea under its megalomaniacal leader Kim Jong-Il evoke our natural desire to pick up the hammer near its head and swing hard. North Korea has exploded a second underground nuclear warhead and conducted numerous long-range and short-range missile launches with vary degrees of success. The Obama Administration’s responses to these acts of mounting aggression have been limited to disapproving words and joining in a unanimous condemnation by the UN Security Council.

While it is easy to dismiss Obama’s response as insufficient for the scale of the threat, we need to consider recent history. The former Clinton and Bush Administrations have considered/tried both force, mostly in the form of sanctions, and placation, mostly in the form of negotiations and concessions, with North Korea to little avail. However outright crazy he may be, Kim has proven as masterful and wily as his father at playing his neighbors/world powers against each other.

The latest attempts at negotiations have featured six-party talks that include Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia in addition to North Korea and the U.S. If the U.S. led a multi-national “Coalition of the Willing” against Iraq, we have headed a small coalition of the mostly unwilling where North Korea is concerned.

Russia has traditionally been North Korea’s strongest ally. China has attempted to maintain the status quo for fear that any conflict could lead to a regional arms race. Even South Korea has been anxious to avoid provoking Kim out of fear that its proximity will invite reprisals. Never mind nuclear missiles – simple artillery can reach Seoul from the Demilitarized Zone.

In the past, violations of agreements by North Korea have earned loud, angry, and vigorous condemnations from the U.S., with promises of increased sanctions or worse. This, in turn, results in defensive apologies for North Korea by Russia, statements from China on its adamancy not to allow others to interfere in the region, and lack of support from South Korea. Only Japan has typically stood by the U.S. North Korea typically responds by becoming even more bellicose until Washington gives in.

Beyond strongly worded censures, the Obama Administration has restrained its response to North Korean antagonism almost to the point of tepidity. At first impression, our analysis is to term it as weak and ineffective. However, in the vacuum left by U.S. restraint, an interesting and powerful development is occurring.

With the U.S. holding back on the hammer, rather than grasping it near the head and swinging away, these other nations have begun tenuous but real attempts to grip the hammer with us.

Russia called in the North Korean ambassador to its foreign ministry and told him Moscow had “serious concerns.” Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said, “Anything which would undermine the regimes of the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and Nuclear Test Ban Treaty] is very serious and needs to have a strong response.” He also made it clear that “more will follow.”

As for China, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement that it was “resolutely opposed” to North Korea’s actions. U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry told reporters after meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi that China “agreed with us that North Korea's actions are wrong and that there need to be consequences. And, China will support a, ‘measured’ response that is now being negotiated in New York.” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs agreed, characterizing the Chinese government’s condemnation as “exceptionally strong.”

Even South Korea finally abandoned trepidation of offending its northern counterpart and agreed to join more than ninety nations in the Proliferation Security Initiative by stopping and inspecting North Korean vessels suspected of transporting banned weapons.

Kim continues pushing limits but his acts seem increasingly desperate in the face of unanimous world denunciation. The UN’s actions will not be as forceful and certainly not as quick against North Korea as the U.S. alone might achieve but when it finally does swing the hammer, it will swing with considerable leverage.

If nothing else, Russia, China, and South Korea are far more likely to insist on a place in future negotiations. This is exactly the opposite of what Kim hopes to achieve. He counted on an aggressive U.S. response turning the situation into a two-party dispute, enabling him to win concessions in direct negotiations. Such is the opinion of Paik Hak-soon of the South Korean Sejong Institute.

Gary Samore, the White House Nonproliferation Director agrees, recently telling the Brookings Institution “it's very clear that the North Koreans want to pick a fight. They want to kill the six-party talks.” Samore predicted North Korea would continue its provocative actions but that disciplined restraint by the U.S., coupled with ongoing condemnation by the international community, would force the North back to six-party negotiations within nine months.

The Workers Party Monument in Pyongyang teaches the virtue of this approach – the largest number of the greatest diversity of hands most effectively wields the hammer. Luckily, Kim Jong-Il does not seem to grasp its lesson while the Obama Administration understands it very well. Let us hope hawks here at home do not force our new President into a more antagonistic, potentially destructive response. Such would constitute the oldest rookie mistake in the book.

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