At Large

Prepare to Be Tested

North Korea's message to Obama.

By 2.13.09

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The North Koreans have perfected what is called in football a double reverse. The DPRK has long been master of the political maneuver of altering its position twice so to end up exactly where it started. It has just done so again.

With North Korea's "Dear Leader" returning to a modified schedule, there appears no question that Kim Jong-il is slowly but definitely recovering from what appears to have been some form of stroke. He had effectively left the scene with George W. Bush as U.S. president and now reenters the political world with Barack H. Obama having taken over the White House. This evolution finds Pyongyang in the less than desirable position of perceiving itself as less important than before to an American administration.

From Pyongyang's standpoint it is a time to take a step back from the earlier negotiations in order to test the new and perplexingly naïve Obama Administration. It is difficult to assess how the period of Kim Jong-il's illness altered the leadership hierarchy in the DPRK. It is clear, however, that there is an effort by N. Korea to shift negotiations with the U.S. back to an earlier time in the course of the recent six party talks that includes in addition to the two principals: China, Russia, Japan and S. Korea.

As it did with the launching of short range missiles toward the Sea of Japan in the midst of nuclear arms talks in late May 2007, Pyongyang once again seems to be using an expected test firing of its long range missile, the Taepoding-2, theoretically capable of reaching Alaska, as a form of greeting for the announced early visit to Asia of President Obama and his new secretary of state, Hillary R. Clinton. It would be similar to one of those crushing hits on rookie football players that remind them that they are now playing in the "big time."

Whether or not the North Koreans actually launch the missile from its test facility at Dongchangri near the Chinese border, the message will have been sent to the new American administration that the DPRK should not be overlooked in President Obama's plans for "a new view" of U.S. foreign policy. Realizing a potential international perception of weakness resulting from Kim Jong-il's illness, North Korea's leadership cadre want to return to a priority position in the White House's foreign political thought process.

By threatening to break its military agreements with South Korea, the North has created an environment of danger that would surround a later long-range test firing. Pyongyang has put a great deal of serious thought into resetting the table before any future six party nuclear talks involving the newly arrived Obama government. Leverage is the aim and the North Koreans know how to play the game.

If a long-range missile is launched, it is also a commercial reminder that North Korea is still a player in the international arms scene; even if it only lands 200 miles off Japan's coast, as the earlier Taepodong-2 did in 2006. Naturally it would be more effective in every way, military, political and commercial, if such an intercontinental test launch were a spectacular success. The missile actually only has to be reasonably near operational, however, in order to set up the new nuclear negotiations with a favorable edge for Pyongyang.

The Obama administration will be entering any new negotiations without the Asia careerist who was the last administration's principal negotiator. Korea-wise Christopher Hill has been inexplicably shunted off to be the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq. The negotiations over the years with North Korea often have been influenced by the personalities involved.

In national security affairs and sports some players are indeed indispensable, and the imperturbable Ambassador Hill certainly had approached that status during the Bush years. Professionally Christopher Hill did not satisfy either the far right or the far left. He showed, however, he could play the complicated N. Korea game as well as the Koreans. There appears little reason for his transfer at this stage of Washington/Pyongyang relations.

The rule of thumb since the earliest days of the Korean War armistice has been that while the N. Koreans do not negotiate under pressure, they also will not negotiate without pressure. The recognition and exploitation of this extraordinary balance has been a long and difficult road. It would be best if the new secretary of state and her boss had remembered this hard-earned lesson.

Putting in new players at this crucial juncture of the game would appear to be strictly a gesture to Mr. Obama's liberal left. Such an action only can produce an unexpected chop block. As has been said before, "Welcome to the NFL, Mr. Obama."

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.