Given these conditions, the American message to North Korea should be a diplomatic equivalent of, "Go ahead, launch it and see what happens."
What is vital, however, is that should North Korea launch the missile, the U.S. must not overplay the advantages thusly derived from the situation. The recommendations to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea or destroy the missile on the ground in North Korean territory would be psychologically gratifying, no doubt, but is not advisable. Such a move would forfeit all the diplomatic leverages; the U.S., not North Korea, would now be seen as overreacting and being belligerent, while North Korea would play the victim card of having been attacked by the U.S.
Instead, what the U.S. ought to do is declare a North Korean missile test a grave provocation and an unacceptable threat to both the U.S. and East Asian regional security, and establish a quarantine of all transport in and out of North Korea. Tokyo will likely join the U.S. and even contribute naval and air elements for the effort. Seoul may not participate actively, but will acquiesce in the end.
Crucially, the U.S. should use the occasion to present Beijing with an ultimatum — as "Nuclear Showdown" author Gordon Chang has suggested — to make the continued Sino-American economic and trade relationship contingent upon China's cooperation to disarm North Korea.
Once a quarantine is in place, the U.S. should convey a simple message to Pyongyang that the quarantine will not end until North Korea backs down first. For once, it will be North Korea's turn to give something in return for reverting to the status quo.
But won't the North Koreans escalate? They previously declared that a quarantine would be an act of war. Would they not initiate a military conflict?
They will not, because such a conflict would be the death of Kim's regime and the end of North Korea as a state. Pyongyang has far more to lose.
For too long, North Korea has played chicken with the U.S. and has won. A North Korean missile launch would be, finally, the right moment for the U.S. to play chicken with North Korea — and win.
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
Writing in The Seattle Times, James Na says it is time to call North Korea's bluff: