On a chilly spring Sunday, with the sun peeking through the clouds, President Barack Obama visited Camp Bonifas — named for a U.S. soldier who was decapitated with an ax by North Korean troops — along the Korean demilitarized zone. Wearing a windbreaker given to him by General James D. Thurman, commander of the joint forces in Korea, Obama gazed across into North Korea through binoculars. “North Korea will achieve nothing by threats or by provocations,” he said in a joint press conference later that evening in Seoul with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. “North Korea knows its obligations, and it must take irreversible steps to meet those obligations. On this, the United States and the Republic of Korea are absolutely united.”
Koreans on both sides of the DMZ can be forgiven if they roll their eyes at U.S. Presidents and their speeches. Nearly 18 years ago, President Bill Clinton stood not far from the observation deck that Obama visited on Sunday and declared: “It doesn’t make any sense, I mean when you examine the nature of the American security commitment in Korea and Japan, for this reason it’s pointless for them to try and develop a nuclear weapon because if they ever used a nuke, it would be the end of their country.” In 2006, North Korea announced its first successful test of a nuclear bomb and is now suspected of having nearly a dozen bombs. And yet, beyond sanctions, the U.S. and its allies have done little in reaction.
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Time and again, North Korea has steamrolled across U.S. red lines with impunity. Matching engagement in six-party talks — between the U.S., both Koreas, Russia, China and Japan — with hostile actions such as further uranium and plutonium enrichment, nuclear tests and “satellite” launches, which everyone knows are actually intercontinental ballistic missiles. The change of regime in December when Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il died and his third son, 29-year-old Kim Jong Un, was elevated to lead North Korea, seems to have changed little. North Korea last month agreed to freeze its nuclear program, allow in International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and re-engage with the U.S. in bilateral talks aimed at restarting the six-party process. But this month, North Korea is threatening to launch a satellite to mark the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather and the first Supreme Leader. Kim is still in the process of consolidating his power and, Asian diplomats and analysts believe, needs this satellite launch to demonstrate to his people that he’s willing to stand up to the West.
Beyond tough talk, there’s little any U.S. President can do to stop Pyongyang’s antics. After two wars in the Middle East, Americans are weary of war and the casualties and deficits it brings. There are also presidential elections in less than eight months. But, more important, North Korea is a buffer to China. Going to war there would mean, essentially, going to war with the owner of much of America’s debt — not an ideal situation. Notably, Kim waited until after he reportedly received a large shipment of food aid from China — some 240,000 tons of food aid were on the table in the U.S. talks, food that will never be delivered if North Korea launches — before threatening a satellite test.
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North Korea has enjoyed its puckish role as China’s proxy harasser to the U.S., South Korea and Japan. The Supreme Leader, army and Pyongyang’s powerful ruling union, which employs the entire country, have profited handsomely, even as North Koreans starve, playing the six parties off one another for the past two decades. Asian diplomatic sources speculate that Kim could also be trying to influence South Korea’s upcoming parliamentary elections in April. Lee’s ruling party is weak, and one of its weaknesses has been what some South Koreans perceive as an overly rigid stance on North Korea.
To hear U.S. diplomats tell it, the U.S. is engaged in a dual-track strategy with North Korea: a sincere offer for diplomatic talks coupled with ever tightening sanctions. That may sound familiar. The same strategy has been applied much more successfully in Iran. But while China has made the calculation that it’s easier to shop for oil elsewhere and cut Iran loose, it has much more need of North Korea in a direct strategic sense: if North Korea didn’t exist, U.S. troops could go right up to the border of China, and U.S. ships dangerously close to Beijing. When U.S. ships entered the western edge of the Yellow Sea after North Korea torpedoed and sank a South Korean navy ship, Chinese leaders experienced arrhythmia. Until China feels it doesn’t need North Korea as a troublemaker and physical buffer, it’s unlikely it’ll stop backing Kim’s regime. Which means, no matter what Obama says on Monday, North Korea is likely to launch that “satellite,” and there’s little the U.S. and its allies can do in response.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Lee Myung-bak as South Korea’s Prime Minister. He is the president.