Skip to main content

Rescind North Korea's license to provoke

By Patrick M. Cronin, Special to CNN
January 29, 2013 -- Updated 1247 GMT (2047 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • North Korea has threatened more missile and nuclear tests
  • Patrick Cronin says the threats came in response to reasonable sanctions imposed on N. Korea
  • He says it may be prudent to show N. Korea that such provocations won't succeed

Editor's note: Patrick M. Cronin is senior adviser and senior director of the Asian-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. He earned a doctorate in international relations at St Antony's College, University of Oxford.

(CNN) -- "Even if you know the way," an ancient Korean proverb advises, "ask one more time."

If North Korea's latest cycle of misdeeds, followed by international censure, followed by menacing words out of Pyongyang has a familiar ring to it, it is because this behavior has become a fixture of the accordion-like rhythm of Northeast Asian security. But a familiar path is not the same thing as a prudent one. It would be a mistake to let North Korea's young leader think he has inherited the family license to provoke with immunity.

Patrick Cronin
Patrick Cronin

Let's briefly retrace the recent cycle of provocation, sanction and threat.

On December 12, North Korea successfully launched a three-stage Unha-3 rocket. Although an Earth observation satellite (Shining Star-3) was placed into orbit, the ostensibly peaceful launch simultaneously advanced the North's long-range missile program that would put U.S. territory into target range. The triumphant launch came eight months after a similar rocket shattered over the Yellow Sea. Unha-3 can reach at least Guam now and most likely will be able to reach Alaska and Hawaii and the West Coast of the continental United States within the coming year or two. Adding a workable nuclear warhead will take a bit longer, perhaps three or more years, based on available information.

The launch also delivered a success on the first anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death, conferring precious credibility on Kim Jong Un's fledgling regime.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



On January 22, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2087. The resolution strengthens existing sanctions, curbing the travel and potentially the finances of the agencies and senior officials responsible for the rocket launch. Resolution 2087 marks a proportionate response to a specific infraction, as the April and December rocket launches violated previous Security Council resolutions enacted after the North's 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests.

The latest resolution leaves open a diplomatic path. It encourages North Korea to rejoin Six Party Talks with China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States, aimed at realizing Pyongyang's official pledge of September 19, 2005, to move toward total denuclearization. But the U.N. measure also signals a "significant determination" to impose harsher measures in the event of a third nuclear test.

Pyongyang threatens South Korea
North Korea prepares for nuke test
North Korea move in 'defiance' of U.N.?

Pyongyang's verbal reaction to sanctions has been swift and purposeful. Declaring sanctions to be tantamount to "a declaration of war," North Korea is threatening further missile and nuclear tests. Invective is conveniently aimed at the North's "sworn enemy" the United States, as the Obama administration transitions its national security team for a second term.

Just as South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye seeks to instigate a more peaceful inter-Korean relationship, the North Korean regime appears to quash that initiative before it gets off the ground. Kim Jong Un himself may be threatened by the mere prospect of a summit with South Korea's Iron Lady.

Seoul's economic prosperity and strong democratic institutions stand in stark contrast to those of North Korea, which appears incapable of abandoning its stereotypical ways, including the economic dead-end of a military-first policy.

Despite a well-trodden history of provocation, sanction and threat, the North's latest threats should not be sloughed off as insignificant. North Korea's next nuclear test may well pave the way for a sizeable expansion of its nuclear arsenal.

If its clandestine uranium-enrichment program has made strides, Pyongyang could demonstrate that it will gain access to a far larger pool of fissile material than simply its limited supply of weapons-grade plutonium. A larger pool of fissile material is a dual threat: As a vital part of an expanded nuclear weapon program and as a commodity to be sold on the black market.

Beyond the obvious goal of regime survival, burgeoning nuclear and missile programs may be changing North Korea's tolerance for risk. In the space of a year, Kim Jong Un has struck a nuclear and missile moratorium with the United States (the so-called "Leap Day" deal), quickly abandoned that agreement, launched two long-range rockets in contravention of international law, and now is prepared for a third nuclear test at the Punggye-ri nuclear test facility in the northeast.

Nuclear test number three could be conducted any time, from the next few days to the coming weeks or months. With a successful test, Pyongyang could in effect proclaim itself invulnerable, above the law, a nuclear-weapon state immune from international action. To allow such a misconception to become deeply engrained in the psyche of a leader not thought to be yet 30 years of age would be a grave mistake.

At some point, a leaky defensive containment policy reaches a tipping point when the penalties of continuing it outweigh the gains of preserving it. Thus, the familiar path eventually becomes the wrong one.

The world should be close to reaching that conclusion, and North Korea should begin to wonder when its luck will run out and it conducts one provocation too many. Above all else, the United States and its allies and partners need to fashion more offensive policy tools that exact steeper penalties for North Korean transgressions.

Shifting from defensive to offensive containment requires the United States, South Korea and Japan to augment their defensive posture, through improved and more integrated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Japanese and South Korean space launches may indicate such steps are under way. In the event of a nuclear test, these steps should include the procurement and deployment of the latest ballistic missile defenses. Additional steps can be taken to reinforce the North-South maritime border west of the peninsula, the Northern Limit Line that was the site of both armed clashes in 2010, and the general state of readiness for a range of provocations.

Beyond military steps, however, there needs to be corresponding legal, economic, political and social consequences for the North's leadership. While stopping far short of seeking regime change in North Korea, the United States, South Korea and others could help flood North Korea with radio and electronic information.

For instance, it could begin by letting North Koreans know about the costs of its military-first extravagances. It could also let more North Koreans know about some of the extensive foreign financial holdings of the North Korean leadership. Last week, North Korea's official news agency opined that, "A nuclear test is what the people demand." If it's popular sentiment that the North wants to satisfy (given the supposed indigenous demand for a nuclear test), then the world ought to oblige North Koreans by providing information censored by the regime that could prompt different types of popular demands.

Because escalatory steps must eventually either climb back down or lead to war, there should be a continuing willingness to talk with North Korea and, should it ever shift tack and commit responsible acts, the United States and its allies should be prepared to reward those acts with more fruitful exchanges and assistance. One aim of offensive containment is to move China from talking about pressure on North Korea to taking effective action to rein in its ally.

Admittedly, these steps are probably bolder than what is currently in fashion in Washington or Seoul. Some officials may feel paralyzed. Perhaps they believe that even a deteriorating status quo is preferable to a heightened risk of sudden change. But sudden change is not foreordained by getting tougher, whereas certain change—more fissile material, more potential nuclear and missile know-how that can be sold under our noses to the bidders in the tumultuous Middle East and even to al Qaeda terrorist cells—becomes more likely every day North Korea moves forward with its mass-destruction technologies.

In sum, although North Korea is taking the world down a familiar path, key officials need to ask anew whether the familiar path is still the best one.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patrick M. Cronin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT