One of the strangest things about the American right’s thinking about foreign policy is it’s ability to combine sublime overconfidence in the likely efficacy of using military force with a panicky and paranoid view of America’s general position in the world. Thus we get things like Joseph Loconte, a contributor to The Weekly Standard, fretting that North Korea now has “the upper hand” in its relations with the world.
As John Boonstra points out this is nuts:
North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear plant — which persistent diplomacy succeeded in shutting down in in Bush’s second term — could not even be fully re-started for at least six to twelve months. In the meantime, the United States and Japan have put forth the names of companies to be targeted by the Security Council committee responsible for administering sanctions on North Korea. While it’s conventional to depict North Korea’s nuclear breakout as a ticking time bomb scenario, it’s really the country’s own leaders who are running out of time and credible options here.
With the climate so soured against it, any North Korean gambit to resume nuclear production seems designed to offer up bait to American hawks and split the United States off from the other six-party participants. China, not the United States, is the most important actor in this regional drama, and constructive Sino-American diplomacy here will bring far greater benefits than getting caught up in a war of rhetorical (let alone military) escalation with a feeble and desperate regime.
Iran is at least a legitimate regional military power in its part of the world. North Korea is weaker than South Korea, weaker than Japan, weaker than China, and of course also weaker than the United States. It’s poor and it’s isolated. It’s also a very frustrating situation. The DPRK leadership refuses to take a reasonable path and it does seem likely that until there’s some change at the top we’re going to see constant outbreaks of crises of one sort or another. But managing the problem is far from impossible. The DPRK doesn’t really have any cards to play beyond hoping that wild gambits will provoke wild counteractions that disrupt the coalition against it.