Most North Korea watchers believe this week’s missile launch by the insular dictatorship was prompted by domestic imperatives. The latest Stalinist ruler, 29-year-old Kim Jong Un, is reportedly struggling to consolidate power; the anniversary of his father’s death is coming up. He had to do something to deliver on the regime’s promise that 2012 would be a year of “strength and prosperity.”
It’s likely that the new leader is hoping to repeat the trick of his father and grandfather: luring the United States and South Korea into trying to stop his misbehavior with cash and food.
Pyongyang has a long record of promising to stop its missile tests or freeze its nuclear program in exchange for such aid. It pockets the reward and reneges.
The latest instance came in April, when North Korea staged a missile test just weeks after agreeing with the Obama Administration on a freeze of its programs in exchange for 240,000 tons of food (which were never delivered) and de facto U.S. recognition of the new ruler.
Unlike the April launch, this one appeared successfully to have placed a satellite in orbit. It drew predictable denunciations from Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo — and an equally predictable statement by China opposing any meaningful action by the United Nations Security Council.
Mr. Kim likely will get the attention he seeks soon after South Korea’s upcoming presidential election. Both leading candidates have promised to soften the tough policy of the present government in Seoul.
In particular, a victory by leftist Moon Jae-in probably would lead to a return to the failed “sunshine policy” of the 2000s. South Korea heaped aid, investment, and political favors on North Korea, without bringing about any change in a regime that keeps an estimated 150,000 of its people enslaved in prison camps and starves most of the rest.
Regardless of South Korea’s choice, the Obama Administration should avoid repeating its mistakes. For three years before it struck its foolish deal with the regime, the administration stuck to the position that it would not “buy the same horse” from Pyongyang.
Instead, it sought to tighten sanctions and to bring pressure on China, which is the only country with real leverage over North Korea. That would be the appropriate response to the latest incident.
Meanwhile, the administration should continue to fund development of the rudimentary missile defenses developed by the Clinton and Bush administrations in anticipation of the North Korean threat. A missile that can place a satellite in orbit could, with further work, someday be equipped with a nuclear payload capable of reaching the United States.
— Washington Post