Since January, analysts have been wondering what's up with Barack Obama's policy toward North Korea. There have been numerous signs that Obama's not interested in continuing the nukes-for-aid policy started by Bill Clinton and continued, with some interruption, by George W. Bush--signs including Hillary Clinton's recent suggestion that the administration can't talk de-nuclearization during what appears to be a succession crisis in Pyonyang, and the replacement of Christopher Hill with part-time envoy Stephen Bosworth. (Hill's efforts were closely associated with the old policy.)
But now, a recent New York Times front-pager hints that Obama has fundamentally reassessed his approach for dealing with North Korea:
While Mr. Obama was in the Middle East and Europe last week, several senior officials said the president's national security team had all but set aside the central assumption that guided American policy toward North Korea over the past 16 years and two presidencies: that the North would be willing to ultimately abandon its small arsenal of nuclear weapons in return for some combination of oil, nuclear power plants, money, food and guarantees that the United States would not topple its government, the world's last Stalinesque regime.
Now, after examining the still-inconclusive evidence about the results of North Korea's second nuclear test, the administration has come to different conclusions: that Pyonyang's top priority is to be recognized as a nuclear state, that it is unwilling to bargain away its weapons and that it sees tests as a way to help sell its nuclear technology.
"This entirely changes the dynamic of how you deal with them," a senior national security aide said.
While some officials privately acknowledged that they would still like to roll back what one called North Korea's "rudimentary" nuclear capacity, a more realistic goal is to stop the country from devising a small weapon deliverable on a short-, medium- or long-range missile.
This could all be posturing--attempts to scare China and Russia into acting more aggressively. But if it does accurately reflect the administration's views, it means that U.S./North Korea policy has entered a new phase, one in which we are essentially resigned to the existence of North Korea's nuclear program. As the Times article suggests, our efforts to protect ourselves from North Korean nukes will now hinge on our ability to degrade Pyongyang's missile program from afar--probably via targeted sanctions against North Korean companies and by preventing shipments of nuclear material that Pyongyang tries to sell through Russia or China. (As well as traditional deterrence.) Needless to say, these efforts could easily fail--and we wouldn't be in such a dangerous situation if we hadn't abandoned the Agreed Framework in 2001 and allowed Kim to build so many nuclear bombs.