We’ve seen this act before. North Korea feels dissed, or neglected, or badly in need of more oil or food, and it stages a massive diplomatic hissy fit. In the past, the rest of the world either (a) responded with empty anger or (b) capitulated, granting new concessions to the NoKos. In most cases, the response was sequential (a) then (b). The temptation now is to simply ignore the latest fit–but there is a real North Korean threat: if we don’t feed and heat them, they’ll start selling their nuclear bomb material to the highest bidder. (Of course, there’s the possibility that they’ll do that anyway–selling nuclear plans, to Syria, for example, and military hardware to Iran has been North Korea’s most valuable export.)
So what to do? Nothing dramatic in public, I would say. Work through the Chinese, for starters. It would be nice if the Chinese would quietly threaten economic pressure on the Koreans, but they are–justifiably–afraid that if you squeeze North Korea too tightly, it will collapse, sending a tidal wave of refugees across the border into China. There may be a few quiet carrots and sticks the Chinese can proffer, but the real prize would be the quiet assurance that if the NoKos rejoin the six party talks, face-to-face meetings with the US would ensue almost immediately. Obama can’t reward the hissy fit by offering the talks front-up, but if it is the Administration policy that we talk to our adversaries–and if we were talking directly to the North Koreans unofficially, via Christopher Hill, in the last Administration–it certainly stands to reason that we should start talking with them soon.
Update: This promise of an offer from Iran is interesting for the absence of the usual Great-Satan-Gonna-Getya tone, but it still should be taken with a pinch of salt. For one thing, Ahmadinejad is running for reelection and may want to appear more reasonable to educated Iranians. For another, he still doesn’t have any control over Iran’s nuclear program or foreign policy, and we need to be sure that he’s acting with the approval of the Supreme Leader. And third, the promise of an offer isn’t an offer. I wouldn’t take this too seriously until something real is put on the table…and even then, we should assume that Iran’s purpose is to drag out the process as much as possible as their nuclear fuel is being milled. It is one thing to favor talks with Iran, as I do, it is quite another to assume the mere act of talking is going to change things much–that will only happen over time, and if the Obama Administration can get the Russians and Chinese, among others, to convince the Iranians that there’s no profit in continuing as an outlaw state.