North Korea’s botched missile launch on Friday prompted indignation from the international community, including onlookers in Washington. While the event unraveled U.S. bargaining efforts with the unruly nation, it also provides a cue for the Obama administration to turn its attention away from Pyongyang.
President Obama should disengage in future bilateral talks with North Korea, as this may prove to be a battle he can’t win.
With the presidential election in six months, Obama should abandon talks with the bellicose nation that has had a pattern of failed rocket launch attempts over the past decade. The Obama administration’s strategy to pivot its interest toward Asia may be good for enhancing relations with China and other allies, but not with an uncooperative and isolated nation like North Korea. The administration’s latest attempt to reach out to the nation resulted in a food assistance deal on Feb. 29 in exchange for the regime’s cooperation to demilitarize and cease its nuclear operations. However, Pyongyang reneged on its promises several days later when it announced that it wouldlaunch a missile for its new leader Kim Jong Un, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of their founding by leader Kim Il-Sung.
Obama’s failed policy with North Korea gives Mitt Romney an opportunity to take a jab at the president’s foreign policy record. "Instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as naïve as it was short-lived," Romney said, adding that Obama’s efforts to reach out to the nation have only undermined national security. In a foreboding tone, Charles Pritchard, a former special envoy with North Korea, said that a foreign policy loss over North Korea would “erase all the good things he [Obama] can point to in other areas of his foreign policy.”
As critics place more scrutiny on the president’s foreign policy record in the coming months, the erratic nation will challenge Obama to define how much of a role America wants with the nation. The U.S. already exerted a sizable role during the Arab Spring uprisings last year by authorizing air strikes to overthrow Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi and calling for former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down. However, as Egypt’s elections show, many of the elected seats have been given to the Muslim Brotherhood, a party which the U.S. is cautious of due to its Islamist sentiment and, according to some U.S. politicians, terrorist ties. Wherever the U.S. has made a stance for regime change, it has proven to be a rocky road and the last thing on the Obama administration’s mind should be regime change in North Korea. If the regime were to fall, the U.S. and South Korea would find themselves responsible for a humanitarian crisis resulting in a large influx of refugees and even violence in the region.
It would be wise of the Obama administration to leave North Korea in the backburner, as the nation may very well be on its way to its own self-destruction. The new regime has already demonstrated weakness after Friday’s launch. The new regime, whose self-preservation and power relies on propaganda, is showing that it is having difficulty feigning news to its citizens, given their easier access to information from China than before, and the presence of foreign journalists that were invited to the country to view the launch.
The launch has also demonstrated that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are far from mighty, but still, doubts remain. As Jennifer Lind wrote in Foreign Affairs, the nation’s “mad man” image has proved to be a strong deterrent because it can be volatile and unpredictable. In addition to nuclear tests and failed missile launches, the country has also made assassination attempts on South Korean politicians. There is a strong consensus that Pyongyang has a “do-anything” attitude and would go as far as “all-out war” for its own self-preservation. Further aggravation, like stronger economic sanctions, could cause dire consequences.
In the end, the U.S. is in a zero-sum game.