It was too good to last.
For the last few weeks, the Obama administration has been showing more fortitude in confronting a belligerent North Korea than either the Bush or Clinton administrations had done. But last week, as I previously noted, there was a worrisome leak in the New York Times which quoted administration officials as saying that any response to a North Korean attack would be strictly proportional—which can only encourage Kim Jong-un to act, safe in the knowledge that the U.S. and South Korea will not “over-react” and bring down his criminal regime in response. Now Secretary of State John Kerry, while visiting East Asia, has announced that the U.S. would be willing to reopen negotiations with the North—and cancel the deployment of U.S. ballistic-missile defenses to the region–as long as Kim Jong-un ratchets down the current crisis and takes some steps toward nuclear disarmament.
This may seem like a reasonable step—what’s wrong with talking?—but in fact it is a sign of weakness and will be read as such in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un is probably undertaking his recent series of provocations precisely to bring the U.S. back to the negotiating table where he can extract more concessions from the West in return for phony promises to dismantle his nuclear program—just as his father Kim Jong-il did. Kerry’s remarks will no doubt suggest to Kim that his strategy is working, and all it will take is a little more pressure from the North (another missile launch, anyone?) for Washington to cave in completely. In other words, the Obama administration is in serious danger of repeating the mistakes of its predecessors, who offered the North concessions which only convinced Pyongyang that it could use its nuclear arsenal to blackmail the West.
Now is not the time for offers to talk or to make concessions. Now is the time to confront Kim Jong-un with determination, to convince him that his strategy of brinksmanship will not pay off.