Spectacular failure though it was, North Korea’s latest rocket launching calls for punitive measures from America and its allies. Bad engineering is no reason for complacency; the benchmark for American policy must be North Korea’s intent. And for decades, that government has been determined to develop nuclear-tipped long-range missiles that would give it leverage over the United States on a host of issues.
It’s predictable that the misfire has triggered over-analysis and scapegoating, with calls for calm and tales of an internal power struggle between “hawks” and “doves” in the new Kim Jong-un government. Others say America and South Korea should re-engage the government in Pyongyang. Both views ignore the fact that Kim Jong-un is following a path of alternating provocations and peace offensives paved by his grandfather Kim Il-sung and perfected by his father, Kim Jong-il.
No government enjoys total unanimity. But the notion that in totalitarian North Korea, a few disgruntled military men might put their foot down and reverse a course of engagement set by their leader is foolish. It ignores the nature of the power structure in the North. For more than a half-century, the Kim clan has kept the military in line through vicious purges, competition that fosters loyalty to the leader, selective rewards and a multilayered security apparatus. While a military clique may one day challenge or even overthrow Kim Jong-un, the notion that the military wields a veto now is a mirage that plays into North Korea’s stratagems.
And for those inclined to believe that the North can be persuaded to change its behavior with inducements, consider this: Except for the invasion of the South in 1950, North Korea has never suffered a lasting or devastating penalty for its many attacks and provocations. On the contrary, it has often been rewarded for false pledges.
From January 1968 to December 1969, North Korea acted with impunity: It sent commandos into Seoul in a failed effort to kill the South Korean president, Park Chung-hee; it seized the United States Navy spy ship Pueblo and its crew, killing one sailor and holding 82 prisoners for 11 months until it got an apology from the Johnson administration; it shot down an American reconnaissance plane, killing 31 servicemen aboard, on Kim Il-sung’s birthday in 1969; and it ambushed and killed four American soldiers patrolling the military demarcation line in October 1969.
A thaw followed in the early 1970s, thanks to American rapprochement with China. Talks between North and South ensued. Kim Il-sung called for diplomatic talks with America. But then North Korea resumed attacks. In 1974 it made another attempt on President Park’s life, in which his wife died. In 1976 North Korean guards hacked two American soldiers to death.
In 1983, as North Korea sought talks with America, its agents targeted the South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan, with a bomb in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar). He survived, but 17 other South Korean officials died. In 1998 North Korea fired a missile over Japan while America, South Korea and Japan were sending energy aid. In 2006 it test-fired a long-range missile on July 5 and staged its first nuclear test three months later. In 2009, it launched a long-range rocket in April and tested a nuclear device on Memorial Day.
In all of these episodes, North Korea was never penalized in any meaningful way. Indeed, several provocations were followed by blandishments — rewards, in effect — in the form of food, fuel and cash from North Korea’s risk-averse adversaries in Seoul and Washington.
This record shows that North Korea doesn’t respond to either rhetorical hostility or diplomatic civility. Its latest ballistic stunt followed a long pattern of ignoring outside warnings. But the American response should not also be the usual — strong on rhetorical condemnation, weak on punitive action and generous in damage-control concessions. North Korea clearly seeks to continue this profitable cycle by dangling before America the possibility of denuclearization, even as it conducts missile and nuclear tests.
Now, as Kim Jong-un is believed to be preparing for another nuclear test, the question remains how much longer America and its allies will take before devising a new collective strategy — one that does not settle for short-term diplomatic gains at the cost of long-term strategic interests.
They can start by responding to the failed launching on Friday as if it had succeeded. The Obama administration is correct to cancel food shipments, which were contingent on a halt to missile and nuclear tests. But it should go further and act with its allies to hit the Kim government itself — by tightening economic sanctions aimed at the privileged few at the top of the Kim dynasty’s power structure; by not relenting in that pressure for the mere privilege of talking with North Korea; and by taking new measures to counter the propaganda apparatus with which the government controls the long-suffering North Korean people.
That may not stem North Korea’s provocations in the short term. But the alternative is, at best, another half-century of putting up with provocations from the North or, far worse, a major nuclear crisis that ends in a devastating war.
Sung-Yoo Lee is a scholar of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts.