Kim Jong-il (R Front), top leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), meets with soldiers in Pyongyang

North Korea’s launch of a long-range Taepo Dong 2 missile would be a direct challenge not just to the United States but to the international community’s resolve to confront threats to regional stability. Pyongyang’s willingness to escalate tensions shows that, despite the change in U.S. leadership, North Korea will not adopt a more accommodating stance.

U.N. Resolutions 1695 and 1718 unambiguously prohibit Pyongyang from launching a missile or “satellite.” North Korea is characterizing the launch as a civilian satellite in order to minimize negative repercussions from its provocative act. Indeed, China and Russia may use this obfuscation to justify resistance to a strong U.N. Security Council response.

Pyongyang calculates that international concerns over rising tensions would cause the U.S. and South Korea to soften demands for North Korea to fully comply with its denuclearization commitments. After all, the Bush Administration softened its position when North Korea threatened to reprocess plutonium in late 2008. North Korea’s actions may also be an attempt to trigger a resumption of bilateral negotiations which stalled at the end of the Clinton Administration. At that time, Pyongyang demanded $1 billion annually in return for a cessation of its missile exports.

Pyongyang’s launch is a tangible manifestation of the continuing threat that ballistic missiles pose to the United States and its allies. A 2001 National Intelligence Estimate by the U.S. Intelligence Community assessed a two-stage Taepo Dong-2 could target Alaska, Hawaii, and the western United States while a three stage missile could threaten all of North America with a nuclear warhead.

North Korea’s defiance represents the first foreign policy test of whether the Obama Administration’s actions will match its strong rhetoric. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have described the beginnings of a firm and principled approach to North Korea, including the need to impose additional sanctions if Pyongyang does not fully comply with its commitments. The U.S. response to North Korea’s missile provocation must therefore send a strong signal that Pyongyang cannot continue to benefit from brinksmanship and military threats. The ramifications of Obama’s response go far beyond the Korean Peninsula. After all, it was President Kennedy’s disastrously weak performance during a 1961 meeting with Nikita Khrushchev that inspired the Soviet leader to engage in the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Obama Administration should implement a three-part response to North Korea’s violation of UN resolutions:

  • Implement punitive sanctions. Demand that all U.N. member nations fully implement the existing sanctions of U.N. Resolutions 1695 and 1718; request a firmer follow-on U.N. Security Council resolution that imposes stronger punitive measures as well as a deadline for compliance; and resume enforcing U.S. and international laws against North Korean illicit activities such as currency counterfeiting, money laundering, production and distribution of illegal drugs, and counterfeit pharmaceuticals.
  • Continue U.S. and allied missile defense development and deployment. Augment deployment of existing systems and continue development of enhanced missile defense capabilities and call on South Korea to deploy a multi-layered missile defense system that is interoperable with a U.S. regional missile network.
  • Augment non-proliferation efforts. Urge South Korea and China to join the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to better defend against North Korean proliferation of missile- and WMD-related technology and components

cross posted at Team Washington