Buying the Same North Korean Horse and Accepting the Unacceptable

Yesterday Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned North Korea that the United States would not accept North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons:

“We will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in the region — or on us,” Mr. Gates told a major security conference here that has been dominated by North Korea’s test this week of a nuclear device and the firing of at least six short-range missiles, all in defiance of international sanctions. North Korea test-fired a missile on Friday, according to a South Korean defense official.

and that the U. S’s patience was wearing thin:

“I think that everyone in the room is familiar with the tactics that the North Koreans use. They create a crisis and the rest of us pay a price to return to the status quo ante,” he said in a question and answer session after his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

“As the expression goes in the United States, `I am tired of buying the same horse twice.’ I think this notion that we buy our way back to the status quo ante is an approach that I personally at least think we ought to think very hard about. There are perhaps other ways to try and get the North Koreans to change their approach,” he said.

Judging by the reactions from our allies Secretary Gates’s speech has apparently had the desired effect:

SEOGWIPO, South Korea — South Korea and Thailand criticized North Korea on Sunday, saying the country’s nuclear test threatens world peace and stability and harms efforts to prevent atomic proliferation.

The two nations’ leaders discussed Pyongyang’s latest nuclear blast on the sidelines of a summit between South Korea and Southeast Asian countries being held amid heavy security.

The event was planned months ago, but North Korea’s underground nuclear test and a series of short-range missile launches last week threatens to steal the limelight from economic matters, the main focus of the agenda.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva agreed that the test goes against international efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation and “undermines peace and stability not only in East Asia but also in the whole world,” Lee Dong-kwan, the South Korean president’s chief spokesman, told reporters.

They also agreed to exert diplomatic pressure to assure North Korea complies with U.N. Security Council resolutions and “promptly returns to six-party talks” aimed at ridding it of nuclear weapons.

As I pointed out the other day this is something that needed to be done.

Unfortunately, we’ve been buying the same horse again and again over the period of the last 50 years and President Obama is likely to keep doing it for the same reason that Ike did: unless we want to risk all-out war with China the amount of pressure we can put on North Korea is limited. Now we’re not just worried about war with China but about losing China’s cooperation as a vendor and money lender. Considering China’s veto-wielding seat as a permanent member of the UN Security council and that China is North Korea’s most important patron, the likelihood of further sanctions against North Korea is very slim. A few moments ago I heard William Krystal on Fox’s sunday morning news program urge lobbing a few missiles at North Korean sites to give them the general idea of the sort of consequences that President Obama and now Secretary Gates has warned of. That won’t happen for the same reasons that the Korean War was suspended more than 50 years ago rather than concluded.

Unless there are same actual, positive, measures that Washington is willing and able to implement these warning are just so much bluster and I have little doubt that’s how the North Koreans interpret them. We have already accepted North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and its proliferation of nuclear technology. Pronouncements about this or that being unacceptable without the means or the will to do anything about it is a sign of weakness.

I hope we are courting China for its participation in the program to interdict ships leaving North Korean ports that might be carrying missile or nuclear weapons parts. That would give them the general idea and North Korea’s not becoming the nuclear technology vendor to any comer is in China’s interest as it is in ours.

The coin pictured above is a North Korean ½ chon, worth about four cents.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. The Strategic MC says:

    “I hope we are courting China for its participation in the program to interdict ships leaving North Korean ports…”

    I don’t think China will have much to say about a robust implementation the PSI in East Asia. Btw, the interdiction of ships approaching N.K. that are carrying proscribed equipment and materials is just as important.

  2. The Strategic MC says:

    “…implementation of the PSI…”

  3. Brett says:

    I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – I think our main goals with regards to North Korea should be to restrict outside aid going into the country; to harden South Korea, Japan, and our other allies in the region against the Norks against their nuclear threat (through ABM and general military aid); and to push as much of the burden of sustaining the North Korean state as possible on to the Chinese.

    Negotiating with the Norks is a fools’ game, since they break every agreement, and have a strong incentive to never actually follow through with their commitment to get rid of their nukes. The Chinese might restrain them, but they ultimately won’t let the North Korean regime fall as long as they sit tight and don’t do anything stupid like launching a war with South Korea. Let the Chinese shoulder the burden, then.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Stratetic MC:

    Don’t you think that Chinese participation would enhance the effectiveness of the Proliferation Security Initiative? I do.

  5. The Strategic MC says:

    I don’t think that China would want to participate. I also question their desire to function as an honest broker.

  6. The Strategic MC says:

    Our hole card on this is the tacit threat to allow Japan to become a nuclear power. China fears this above all else.

  7. Herb says:

    Assuming that he can deliver, Obama should introduce a UN resolution calling for the North Koreans to allow a verification inspection of their long range missile before testing. The purpose of the inspection is to guarantee that the missile is not armed with a nuclear weapon. He should then state that our antimissile technology is sufficient for us to shoot down the NK missile should it be launched prior to inspection.

  8. The Strategic MC says:

    Actually, why doesn’t the proposed U.N. resolution make any N.K. missile subject to destruction once it leaves N.K. airspace? The test data obtained from an unarmed missile launch enables N.K. to refine their current technology. No freebies.

    As a practical matter, I don’t think that Obama is eager to validate, through a successful real-world engagement, the same BMD program that he is trying to reduce. “It works perfectly, so therefore I am reducing funding by an additional 50%.”

    On second thought, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

  9. An Interested Party says:

    Our hole card on this is the tacit threat to allow Japan to become a nuclear power. China fears this above all else.

    Wouldn’t Japan be violating the NPT by doing that? Isn’t that a bad thing? Or is it only bad when particular countries do it…

  10. The Strategic MC says:

    Please notice my use of the word “tacit.”

    “Mr. PRC Foreign Minister, it would be most unfortunate, due to your inability to control your client, if Japan felt compelled to look after it’s own interests.” Wink, wink.

    No, actually, it’s “bad” when anyone “does it.” Unfortunately, no one has the will to stop it, but some will posture and threaten all the live long day. Hence the folly of the NPT.

    Which of the signatories to the NPT, who are currently in violation of their respective pledge, should we sanction and ultimately, deprive of their ill-gotten nuke technology?

  11. Herb says:

    With a little luck, the North Koreans will be cowed by a belief in US technological superiority, reach a judgment that testing a missile and having it shot down will cause them to lose face. With some diplomatic skill they can be made to look cooperative and then offered some things that they really need, like food.

  12. The Strategic MC says:

    “…the North Koreans will be cowed by a belief in US technological superiority…”

    The Norks have no doubts about our technological superiority.

    They have, however, been taking our measure for the last 15 years and want us to be lacking in will.

    “Morale is to material as is the ratio of three to one.” So said some Corsican dude.

  13. The Strategic MC says:

    “… found us to be lacking in will.”