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What Now?

The Wall Street Journal editors observe that North Korea’s nuclear test shouldn’t come as a surprise:

 After the North launched a long-range ballistic missile in April, Mr. Obama declared that “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons. Now is the time for a strong international response.” But the U.S. couldn’t even get a Security Council resolution at the U.N. and had to settle for a nonbinding “presidential statement” of rebuke.

After Pyongyang said it would put two American journalists on trial in June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there was an “open door” to talks. And when the North refused to return to the six-party nuclear talks, Presidential envoy Stephen Bosworth said the U.S. is “committed to dialogue.” Monday’s test brought more global tut-tutting, with the White House saying that “such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea’s isolation.” But Kim Jong Il can be forgiven for concluding that his multiple violations will sooner be rewarded than punished.

Obama went to great lengths to ignore the provocations from North Korea, part of his global outreach that is premised, it seems, on the theory that if the U.S. humbles itself, avoids articulation of its interests, shies away from taking a stance on human rights, ignores misbehavior, and flatters the world’s miscreants, we will endear ourselves in some manner to rogue states. If Obama is as intensely “practical” as his supporters claim, he should examine the results of his outreach and assess whether he is making progress. If not, perhaps it is time for a different tone and vision. Maybe now is not the time to junk missile defense or plead with North Korea to return to the Six Party talks (so we can offer more bribes and continue not to discuss human rights?). As Dan Blumenthal and Robert Kagan suggest, there are steps the Obama administration can take:

First, it should enhance its deterrent to protect itself, South Korea and Japan. That means, above all, bolstering American and allied missile defenses and deterrent capabilities. Unfortunately, it is precisely American missile defense capabilities that the Obama administration is now cutting — despite the growing missile threat from North Korea and Iran. Second, it should strengthen multilateral efforts to stem North Korean proliferation, including more active efforts at interdiction and freezing bank accounts used to fund proliferation. Third, it should give up on the six-party talks. If it ever proves useful to talk to Pyongyang — a big “if” — let’s do so directly.

It is folly to think that China, Russia, Syria, Iran, and other nations aren’t paying very careful attention. Is this a president who can respond with steely determination or one who takes refuge in a fog of meaningless blather from hapless international institutions? It is no excuse to say the Bush administration was equally inept on this issue. Obama is president and it’s his responsibility to reverse a failing policy. Let’s see if he has any tools in his arsenal other than “outreach” and “engagement.”



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