As James Steinberg, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, leaves for Beijing this week to discuss North Korea's most recent provocation, it is tempting to describe his trip using time-worn quotations from two well-known foreign-policy experts: Yogi Berra (it's "déjà vu all over again") and Albert Einstein (the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result).
Don't get me wrong. The North's recent artillery attack on South Korean territory requires a tough response, or as tough as the United States, South Korea, and Japan can get without precipitating another Korean war. That translates into more military exercises, statements condemning Pyongyang and pledging closer trilateral cooperation, sending the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the region, and working more closely together in the future, for example, on military exercises. All are designed to show North Korea that the United States means business and put pressure on the Chinese to rein in Pyongyang.
But will they work? Weren't the joint military exercises held this summer after the sinking of the Chenoan supposed to deter future attacks, like the artillery barrage? That doesn't mean the United States shouldn't take those steps -- or any others that will improve its conventional defenses. But nor should American diplomats kid themselves.
Fifty years of history, if not just pure logic, tell Kim Jong Il that the United States and South Korea will not risk escalation. Just read recently declassified documents about the Richard Nixon administration's deliberations on how to respond to North Korea's unprovoked shoot-down of an American EC-121 spy plane in 1969, which killed all the crew members on board. Nixon's initial impulse to be tough was toned down over time by recognition of the reality that Washington and Seoul have too much to lose in a fight with Pyongyang.
It's also wrong-headed to think China will bring North Korea to heel. Beijing is probably working behind the scenes to encourage Pyongyang to exercise restraint, just as it did after the Chenoan was sunk. But it is wrong to think that all China has to do is snap its fingers and the North will fall into line. Exercising the potential leverage provided by its extensive ties with Pyongyang is very difficult, in part because no North Korean leader worth his salt is going to knuckle under to Beijing.
More public pressure on China isn't helpful, either. Chinese leaders are not going to abandon a core national interest in North Korea's stability and throw Pyongyang overboard because Americans say they should. U.S. leverage, moreover, is limited; threatening closer U.S., South Korean, and Japanese diplomatic and military cooperation isn't going to budge Beijing. If anything, it may backfire, reinforcing arguments made by Chinese hard-liners that Washington's real agenda is not just to deal harshly with Pyongyang but also to encircle and contain China.
All of this reflects a much bigger problem. The Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience" -- refusing to engage Pyongyang based on the false assumption that a politically and economically unstable North Korea can be contained -- has been a train wreck waiting to happen for some time now. It's a policy fixated more on process (maintaining the integrity of the six-party nuclear talks in close consultation with allies) and domestic politics (avoiding Republican criticism) than on securing national interests -- with the risks of talking to North Korea seen as far greater than the dangers of the status quo.
Anyone who has experience dealing with North Korea, however, knows that Pyongyang cannot be contained through pressure alone. Strategic patience is failing on all fronts: building peace and security on the Korean peninsula, curbing and eventually eliminating North Korea's nuclear program, and stopping the spread of weapons technology. As first demonstrated by the Chenoan's sinking last spring, the signs of failure have become clear and unmistakable with the recent tragic artillery attack and the surprise unveiling of Pyongyang's new uranium enrichment program.
Unless the United States changes course, the threat to its interests and those of its allies will get much worse in the months ahead. Expect more provocations, escalation, and possibly even war.
Equally dangerous, Pyongyang stands on the threshold of a significant expansion of its nuclear arsenal. Up until now, one could argue that the North seemed satisfied with a small stockpile of less than 10 weapons. But like every country that has built nuclear weapons and seemed satisfied with a "minimum deterrent," that can quickly go by the boards. The North's new uranium enrichment program is a clear sign that we may be on the brink of such an expansion.