Desperate for some affirmation of his legacy, this interpretation goes, the ailing Kim Jong Il used the drama to draw a former American president onto his own turf. To North Korea’s hungry populace, it doubtless looked as if the Americans had finally come to pay homage.
But the truth is that North Korea no longer instills fear the way it did even during the Clinton presidency, when it once threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” if it did not get its way. For all the nuclear and missile tests the North has recently staged, such a threat today rings hollow. The North still has well-hidden artillery that could do great harm, but South Korean officials say they know that North Korea’s air force does not have enough fuel to send fighters aloft to practice for long, much less to initiate a war. And South Koreans are so unafraid of a 1950s-style invasion that they have built housing developments to the edge of the demilitarized zone dividing the Koreas.
All of which seems to lend weight to the Obama administration’s instinct that this is a moment, in the words of a senior adviser to President Obama, to “break the cycle” set under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush: the North’s serial nuclear provocations lead to a payoff and an agreement that then falls apart, leading to another crisis and another payoff.
So Mr. Obama’s aides say they are accelerating a gradual refocusing of policy away from the receding prospects of all-out war, and onto classic “containment” of the North’s one last big asset: its ability to teach other nations how to put together the building blocks of the bomb.
What seems to be new is the single-minded focus on choking off Pyongyang’s efforts to sell its know-how, rather than pressing for “regime change” as Mr. Bush did in his first term, or trying too hard to lure North Korea with the prospect of full integration with the West, which Mr. Clinton dangled years ago.
“We just want to make sure the government of North Korea is operating within the basic rules of the international community,” Mr. Obama told MSNBC last week.
No one in Washington will admit — at least on the record — that “containment” has become the primary objective; indeed, the government’s official goal is still “complete, verifiable nuclear disarmament,” wording drawn from the Bush era. But few of Mr. Obama’s aides, some of whom have wrestled with North Korea for two decades, believe that the North will ever give up everything in its nuclear panoply — or that the outside world could ever be sure that it had.
The more immediate, and practical, goal, then, is to neutralize Mr. Kim’s ability to reap cash and power from exporting its know-how for building a crude nuclear device.
Mr. Obama won a little-publicized victory in that effort a few weeks ago when the White House used newly granted authority from the United Nations to put a destroyer on the tail of the Kang Nam I, a rusting cargo ship believed to be taking weapons to Myanmar, formerly Burma. No one is sure what the cargo was, and the Navy avoided a direct confrontation. But the Kang Nam finally turned around and went home, its cargo undelivered.
Still, there are reasons to wonder whether containment of North Korea can work. The core idea is that wariness and time are the best instruments with which to let a corrupt, inept government rot from within, as when the Soviet Union collapsed. “I wish they’d conduct a nuclear test every week,” a member of Mr. Obama’s team joked recently, referring to estimates that North Korea has only enough fuel for 8 to 12 weapons.
The problem is that every American president since Harry Truman has underestimated how much rot the North Korean regime could withstand. Each thought the North could fall on his watch. After all, it has been the most sanctioned nation on earth since the early 1950’s, and it has recently cut the few deep economic ties that it made in the past decade with the South.
Some former officials, who have dealt with the North as it veered between wary interaction with its foes and overstated threats, interpreted North Korea’s demand for Mr. Clinton’s appearance in exchange for the journalists’ release as a sign that Mr. Kim might be eager to change course one more time. “They are clearly sending signals that they are ready to engage,” said Wendy Sherman, who guided Korea strategy for Mr. Clinton from the State Department.
Mr. Obama has said that when North Korea is ready to return to six-nation talks, so is he. But several top officials acknowledge being surprised by North Korea’s move early this year to throw out the agreements reached at the end of the Bush era, restart its nuclear plant and test another nuclear weapon. And that has led them to toughen some of the pressure on Pyongyang.
There is new attention, for example, on shutting down North Korean bank accounts and suppliers. There are new sanctions against several firms that have been financing North Korea’s missile trade, including an Iranian company. Under the United Nations resolution, member nations are being pressed to deny North Korean ships fuel and food unless their cargoes are inspected.
Still, intelligence about North Korean activities is notoriously poor, and there are unconfirmed reports that the North is helping the Burmese build a reactor in their country.But perhaps the greatest risk in a containment strategy is one of inconsistency. Two Bushes, two Clintons and President Obama himself have vowed that the world will never tolerate a nuclear North Korea. If America does end up tolerating it, the Iranians will take notice. Which is why Israeli officials bring up North Korea whenever American officials talk to them about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. You Americans can try containment with North Korea, they say; it’s your problem. But don’t try to extend the concept to Iran.