Is Obama to blame for North Korea?

A global security expert weighs in on whether the president's brinkmanship has jeopardized the Korean peninsula

Published April 5, 2013 11:47AM (EDT)

North Korea leader Kim Jong Un                            (Reuters/Kyodo)
North Korea leader Kim Jong Un (Reuters/Kyodo)

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global Post BOSTON — It's been a busy week for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Over just a few days, he has unilaterally nullified the 1953 armistice with South Korea; vowed to restart his uranium enriching and plutonium programs; and issued "final approval" for "merciless" nuclear strikes against the United States.

He taunted South Korea's new leader, and shut down the Kaesong industrial estate, which served as unusual example of cooperation between the two Koreas. Most recently, he transported a missile to the east coast — either in an attempt to lob a warhead in America's general direction (he lacks the capability to actually hit the continent), or more probably, to test it, perhaps on the April 15 birthday of deceased founding father Kim Il Sung. "Is there a more bizarre and frightening figure in the world today than North Korea's young, impetuous and untested leader?" writes GlobalPost senior foreign affairs columnist Nicholas Burns.

For its part, the Obama administration helped amp up the belligerance, flying nuclear-capable B-52s and F-22 stealth bombers over the peninsula in late March, and sailing destroyers to the region in an apparent attempt to remind Kim Jong Un that he's messing with a bad-ass super power.

Some have even suggested that the Obama administration now recognizes that it may have overplayed the brinkmanship.

To put the unprecedented tensions in context, GlobalPost called global security expert Jim Walsh, one of a handful of Americans who has traveled to Iran and North Korea for talks with officials about nuclear issues. Walsh is a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program, and a scholar at MIT's Center for International Studies.

The interview has been edited and condensed by GlobalPost.

GlobalPost: How close are we to war with North Korea? Is the situation genuinely dangerous?

Jim Walsh: It doesn’t seem as if the fundamentals have changed. If that’s the case, an intentional war — where someone takes the first swing on purpose — seems unlikely.

North Korea is the weaker country militarily compared to South Korea by any objective measure, and South Korea knows that. And of course the US is stronger than North Korea.

North Korea wants to hold onto power so it doesn’t want to fight a war it knows it’s going to lose. So I don’t think they’re going to deliberately start a war. As they have for decades, they will try to be provocative up to that threshold, and through brinksmanship, either try to consolidate their position at home and try to improve their bargaining position abroad. They’ll create a sense of crisis and establish this as an issue that people have to pay attention to.

But it’s still dangerous. We will avert war as long as everyone does everything they’re supposed to do perfectly. But the moment someone messes up, then you can get war. That makes it a dangerous situation, because both sides are sort of leaning into each other.

After the 2010 sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan military vessel and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island, Seoul changed its military doctrine in important ways, to threaten North Korea more, to promise stronger punishments, earlier on. That’s how they intend to deter North Korea from crossing that line. Which is great, but if they cross that line then suddenly that’s a real recipe for escalation.

We’ve never really put this new doctrine to the test before.

A Wall Street Journal article published Thursday suggests the crisis is partly due to an ill-advised US show of force surrounding routine US military exercises. Was the administration's behavior too confrontational? Did it mishandle the matter?

The jury’s still out on this. The Obama administration is trying to reassure their allies, South Korea and Japan, so that they don’t do stuff on their own, like starting their own nuclear weapons programs or starting a war that they don’t want to be dragged into.

They’re also sending a message to the North Koreans: Hey, you know we can reach out and touch you; be careful what you wish for.

I was surprised when they [flew nuclear capable aircraft like B-2s and B-52s over the Korean Peninsula]. Some of this was allegedly in the works for a while but regardless, it’s the first time that it’s happened.

The Wall Street Journal article is remarkable in that they’re suggesting they did [the flyovers] and then rethought these flights, and decided to pull back, because they’re concerned that North Korea would miscalculate. So that’s a pretty significant development.

The reporting comes a day after White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, gave a press conference in which twice he referred to the importance that the US take actions in this way to reassure South Korea and prevent South Korea from, quote, ‘taking unilateral action.’

I don’t ever remember anyone saying that from the White House podium before, so I checked the database for all the press conferences over the last five years and couldn’t find such a reference.

We’ve been here before, North Korea’s periodically engaged us in this, particularly around naval exercises. But the pace and the length of this, the intensity of the rhetoric and the new actions being taken by new leaders — in North Korea, in South Korea, in China — feels a little scarier, frankly.

Does sending nuclear-capable aircraft to the Korean Peninsula say something about Obama’s new national security team led by Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel?

John Kerry has said he prefers a diplomatic solution to this dispute and feels all the parties should use restraint. Hagel is no stranger to diplomacy, and especially Track II [informal diplomacy]. The reference to 'the playbook' suggests that there’s been something in place for a while, and what they’re doing is executing decisions that had already been made.

What lessons have we learned about Kim Jong Un over the past two months since North Korea’s nuclear test?

I’m going to keep my eye on Kaesong [industrial zone] — is this something that blows over in a week or do they really permanently shut it? I think that if they permanently shut it down, that’ll certainly be a departure from the past.

North Korea’s such an opaque country, and we have far more theories than we do have facts, so I think that it’s really tough to draw any firm conclusions about a new leader who’s in office for a year doing things that we’ve never seen before and yet are part of a sort of standard create-a-crisis pattern with North Korea.

There appear to be differences in personality between [Kim Jong Un] and his father, and he certainly seems to be risk-acceptant, willing to do things that have never been done before. Personalities matter, and they matter a lot when the country is ruled by one person.

So how will the current escalation affect the potential for future negotiations with North Korea?

They both make them unlikely in the short term and needed in the long term. I say unlikely because it’s very hard for South Korea or an American president to jump into negotiations with a country that has threatened you seven ways to Sunday and back without looking weak, without looking like you’ve given in to North Korea.

For domestic political reasons, I can’t imagine the US and South Korea rushing to the bargaining table, because their domestic opponents will accuse them of being soft.

But clearly this whole thing is also unsustainable.

Pyongyang’s news agency KCNA announced North Korea will restart its nuclear reactors including Yongbyon, which had produced plutonium for weapons. How should the Obama administration respond to that?

It’s an announcement. We’re going to have to see how it actually goes. It’s going to take several months to try to start it up. Can it technically be started up? Can they refurbish it and get it running again? I don’t know what the answer to that question is, but let’s assume that that is the case. It’s unwelcome news, but it’s not as if they don’t have nuclear devices anyway.

But the larger, more central question looming is how to get them to stop the nuclear weapons business in general. And we’re not even close to that right now.

By David Case

David Case is a senior writer and editor at GlobalPost. Follow him @DavidCaseReport.

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