Yesterday, North Korea's official state news agency reported the death of the country's leader, Kim Jong-il. He apparently died of heart failure, leaving behind his twenty-something son, Kim Jong-un, as his chosen successor. While experts expect some turbulence as Kim Jong-un takes power, they also note that the transition to the younger Kim has been underway for nearly three years. The leadership change carries the possibility of destabilization but also the possibility for a renewed diplomatic engagement as North Korea's leadership looks for ways to reinvigorate the country's failing economy. Veterans of both Republican and Democratic administrations are speaking out today to insist that negotiating with North Korea may be unpleasant, but it is also essential. The U.S. response demands a steady hand, calm instead of hyperbole and close coordination with regional partners - most importantly China and ally South Korea.
The U.S., South Korea and other partners are edging North Korea back toward the dialogue that bipartisan experts agree presents the only way forward. North Korea envoy Ambassador Stephen Bosworth announced yesterday that "serious negotiations must be at the heart of any strategy for dealing with North Korea." Our South Korean allies have led the calls to find a peaceful solution to the crisis that has unfolded in recent months. They do so with strong U.S. support backed up by the military might on display in joint exercises.
This morning brings reports of artillery exchanges between North and South Korea, killing two South Korean soldiers and wounding 15 soldiers and three civilians. This comes against the backdrop of heightened tensions in the region and a seemingly volatile political transition taking place inside the North. The attack came as South Korea began its annual military exercises, which are a regular occurrence. The North also disclosed last week that it is pursuing a uranium enrichment program and building a light water reactor. While the North's tactical and strategic objectives are unclear, the U.S. and its allies - who have been engaged in long-term, on-again, off-again negotiations with the North over its nuclear program and other aspects of the relationship - must keep in mind that such provocations are often more indicative of the DPRK's negotiating style and internal succession battle than of a desire to provoke all-out conflict. Already today, our South Korean allies have been carefully calibrating their response to show firmness without escalating. The U.S. policy response towards North Korea demands a steady hand, close coordination with our allies in the region and other influential countries, and a combination of demonstrated strength and restraint.
The last two weeks have witnessed escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, sparked by the suspected sinking of the ROKS Chenoan by a North Korean submarine, which resulted in the deaths of the 46 crew members. Both sides have issued provocations, and the U.S. has stepped up its military preparations in the event that hostilities erupt. What the situation clearly demonstrates is that there is a significant need for a coordinated international response in order to ease tensions and resolve the situation. Such international cooperation and coordination is a pillar of U.S. national security interests and strategy - a point affirmed by President Obama in his West Point address - and is an approach that also benefits U.S. ally South Korea. As Council on Foreign Relations expert Sheila Smith observed, "It is the only way to validate President Lee's efforts to demonstrate to his citizens that the collaborative international approach he has taken will be to South Korea's benefit."
Just over a year ago, President Obama inherited an atrophied American diplomacy, hostile global public opinion, and an agenda that had disengaged from the international community. The last year has seen an American diplomatic resurgence. This renewed American appetite for sustained diplomatic action has produced modest but real results.
President Obama has put nonproliferation policy at the center of his vision of American security – and made significant advances to reduce the threat from nuclear weapons. Yesterday at the UN General Assembly, Obama not only pledged American leadership in the effort to strengthen international nonproliferation treaties, but gained Russian and Chinese support as well. Today, a meeting of the UN Security Council convened and chaired by Obama agreed to take significant steps to tackle the threat. These efforts directly relate to preventing rogue states like Iran and North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. And on this front, President Obama was able to gain Russian support for a unified international response if talks fail with Iran. The U.S. has embraced a path that meets the nuclear threat with tough negotiations, strong safeguards, and an approach that builds on the strengths of other nations, rather than excluding them.
North Korea is likely to grab headlines over the coming July 4th weekend, as the regime has pledged to fire a missile toward Hawaii. But as David Sanger explains, “if your holiday plans call for spending the day on Diamond Head, it is probably not worth cancelling your plans: There is no evidence yet the North’s missiles can reach that far, and their aim is singularly unimpressive.” Nevertheless, North Korea is a real and serious security challenge – a challenge that worsened greatly over the last eight years under President Bush.