Events in North Korea have become increasingly disturbing as the isolated communist dictatorship announced on Tuesday that it will reopen its Soviet-era reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear facility. This follows Saturday’s declaration that North Korea is in a “state of war” with South Korea. The consensus among North Korea watchers is that these moves amount to a lot of sound and fury, and not an effort to start a war; there have been no telltale troop movements. Instead, all these stunts are probably intended to showcase the country’s 30-year-old neophyte leader, Kim Jong Un, as a hands-on figure, capable of talking tough with the West. Thus, the United States must combine diplomatic efforts to urge restraint with a show of resolve that is strong enough to convince Kim, and his inner circle, that saber-rattling won’t provoke any concessions.
Equally important, the United States must reassure South Korea that it won’t become isolated, too, because of the ever-present dangers and sensitivities stemming from its neighbor to the north. To that end, the Obama administration’s decision to send a Navy destroyer, the USS John McCain, to the Korean penninsula, and to have two F-22 fighter planes participate in joint maneuvers with South Korean forces made good sense. In addition to reassuring the South, the moves signal to the North that threats will be answered in kind.
North Korea’s bellicose posture began around the same time that Kim hosted the eccentric former basketball star Dennis Rodman for a bizarre, attention-grabbing visit — in retrospect, a sign that Kim had something to say to the world. Almost immediately, North Korea began a steady drumbeat of military and political announcements that were sure to make its neighbors — in particular, South Korea — very agitated. The decision to reopen the Yongbyon plant will have no immediate impact on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, but nonetheless sent a disheartening message: The plant, able to produce and store weapons-grade plutonium, had been closed as part of a 2007 disarmament deal. Now, North Korea insists, it won’t curb its nuclear ambitions for any sort of deal.
These provocations illustrate the increasing volatility of the North Korean regime, and cast serious doubt on the efficacy of regional talks aimed at curbing the country’s nuclear-weapons program. Kim’s antics have backfired in one respect: China, North Korea’s longtime ally, has become frustrated, and Beijing supported UN sanctions designed to punish North Korea for last December’s nuclear test. Over the long term, China will have to use its own economic and political muscle to force Kim at minimum to take a less confrontational path. Over time, Chinese leaders must come to recognize that their own aspirations for superpower status, and efforts to play a larger global diplomatic role, depend on their ability to control their recalcitrant neighbor. That’s a message the United States needs to reinforce constantly, both to China and North Korea.