Hours after arriving in Seoul for his third visit as president, Barack Obama -- behind a thick plate of bulletproof glass, wearing an Air Force One leather jacket that looked pretty bulletproof itself -- stood on the demilitarized zone peering through binoculars into the haze of North Korea, a ritual performed by George W. Bush ten years ago and Bill Clinton a decade before that. Perhaps standing so close to North Korea inspired Obama to address Pyongyang directly for the first time since taking office. In the middle of a speech to South Korean students at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies the following day, Obama abruptly looked into the cameras and said: "I want to speak directly to the leaders in Pyongyang. The United States has no hostile intent toward your country. We are committed to peace. And we are prepared to take steps to improve relations, which is why we have offered nutritional aid to North Korean mothers and children."
Obama had the right idea in trying to get a direct channel to Pyongyang, but a public speech delivered on television in a third country isn't enough. And despite Pyongyang's recent bad behavior, if the U.S. president wants to avert the latest mini-crisis, kicked up by Pyongyang's intention to launch a satellite rocket in mid-April, he's got to find another way to actually reach the leaders of North Korea.
But so far, things aren't heading in that direction. Indeed, only a couple hours after his speech to university students on Monday, March 26, Obama was venting his anger to Hu Jintao over North Korea's latest mischief and its seeming refusal to engage. After all, it's only been a few weeks since the United States and North Korea made their "Leap Day Deal" in which Pyongyang promised to suspend its nuclear activities, reopen its declared nuclear site to International Atomic Energy Agency inspection, and suspend both nuclear and long-range missile tests, in return for the United States promising 20,000 tons a month of nutritional assistance to feed hungry North Koreans for the next year. The Leap Day deal was the first major foreign relations move of the Kim Jong Un regime and the first time the Obama administration negotiated an agreement on anything with North Korea. Yet Pyongyang's announcement of a satellite launch just two weeks after the deal seemed calculated to trash the agreement and provoke the United States. The United States sees no meaningful distinction between launching a satellite rocket and testing a ballistic missile, given the considerable overlap in "dual-use" technology to perform both feats. The planned launch would therefore abrogate the Leap Day deal and flaunt United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874 that "demanded" North Korea desist from "any launch using ballistic missile technology." Even North Korea's offer to invite foreign experts and journalists to "ensure maximum transparency" is dismissed as a marketing tool for its missile exports. Japan's former minister of defense Yuriko Koike summed up a widely held view when she wrote that Pyongyang's young leader is up to the same "old tricks" of his father.
Now comes the moment of truth for Obama's Korea policy. The safe response is to keep leaning on China and other countries to condemn Pyongyang's planned launch, and then tighten sanctions and push for a U.N. Security Council resolution after it happens. But the safe, obvious move is also the wrong one. Washington needs to pay more attention to the domestic political context of North Korean foreign policy-making after the death of Kim Jong Il, and to advance down -- not retreat from -- the tortuous path of engaging Pyongyang.
In looking at what is known about North Korean foreign policy, it appears that Kim's move was actually somewhat restrained. Before his death, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il proclaimed April 15, 2012 -- the 100th anniversary of Eternal President Kim Il Sung's birth -- as demarcating Year One of North Korea's emergence as a "strong and prosperous great nation." There are much more provocative ways that Pyongyang could have decided to celebrate the occasion -- from a third nuclear test to another military clash in the West Sea. The space launch, while alarming to U.S. officials, is not nearly so bellicose. Rather, it is intended to serve as a dramatic, visible symbol of this new era in North Korea, one that overshadows the dark reality of economic hardship and privation. Given South Korea's repeated failure to launch a satellite, the successful flight of North Korea's "Gwangmyongsung-3" rocket has an added benefit as a propaganda asset in Pyongyang's rivalry with Seoul -- one of very few that remain.