Launch This

Why Barack Obama needs to reset his North Korea policy.

Kim Jong Un may have a few more tricks up his sleeve. In fact, North Korea's successful launch Wednesday of a long-range rocket may be just the first in a series of moves by Pyongyang, demonstrating that it is not only striving to become a nuclear power but also a grave danger to regional security. Whatever drives North Korea -- national security concerns, domestic politics, Kim family prestige -- Washington should treat its success as a wake-up call, realize its policies have failed and explore options for a rebalanced approach that includes more active diplomacy.

While the long-range rocket test appears to have brought Pyongyang closer to fielding a viable weapon, the threat to the United States is not going to appear overnight. The Unha cannot reach the continental United States armed with a heavy warhead, nor has the North perfected the technologies needed for such a weapon, such as a re-entry vehicle or heat shield. The situation, however, will likely grow more dangerous from here. In five years, North Korea might have 50 nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them regionally; in a decade it might have the capability to strike the United States. Moreover, as its stockpile of bombs and missiles grows, the North will be looking for export markets, confident that it will be difficult to punish a country armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.

Besides the danger posed by weapons of mass destruction, the North could continue its provocative behavior, like it did in March 2010 by sinking the South Korean ship Cheonan and by bombarding a South Korean island in Nov 2010. If the South strikes back, it could lead to destructive war -- one that could draw in the United States and China on opposite sides. North Korea is thought to have 13,000 pieces of artillery near the Demilitarized Zone that separates it from its southern neighbor, many within range of Seoul -- a city of 10 million people.

While these dangers may seem to merit obvious attention, the Obama administration has ignored them. Like the conservative South Korean government currently in power, the Obama team erroneously believes that a politically unstable, economically weak North Korea will eventually buckle under pressure -- resulting in better deals at the negotiating table--if Pyongyang returns to talks.

On occasion, the administration has tried to reach out to Pyongyang, but those efforts have failed, in part because of Washington's own shortcomings. The Korean press has reported that current and retired U.S. officials have traveled Pyongyang to assure the North that the United States harbors peaceful intentions. Those efforts have failed, in part because of their juxtaposition with a U.S. decision in October to allow South Korea to extend the range of its own ballistic missiles to cover the whole of the North. Likewise, while the administration viewed President Obama's November speech in Burma, where he offered an "extended hand" from the United States if North Korea would simply "let go" of its nuclear weapons, as a significant gesture, from Pyongyang's perspective it was nothing new. The North Koreans have heard similar lines a thousand times before. The overall impression left by U.S. policy is not "strategic patience" -- a fancy Washington euphemism for doing nothing -- but strategic drift.

The successful rocket launch should compel the Obama administration to discard the myths that form the shaky foundation of current policy:

1. North Korea is not a failed state that can never achieve its nuclear or economic ambitions. It is moving slowly down each road.

2. Contrary to the belief that North Korea does not abide by agreements, Pyongyang gutted a multi-billion dollar program during the 1990s that could have produced as many as 100 nuclear weapons because of an agreement with Washington.

3. The North is not a hermit kingdom. It is developing close economic relations with China, sending hundreds of North Koreans overseas for educational and business training; and it recently hired the German Kempinski hotel group to run the largest hotel in Pyongyang.

4. North Korean leaders are no more irrational than other world leaders: They're working to build closer relations with China and buttress their own defenses in response to perceived threats.

5. Beijing is not going to solve the North Korea problem for Washington; it is more interested in stability on its borders than U.S. nuclear concerns.

With these in mind, the White House should launch a policy review led by a prominent American official or former official, like the one conducted by former Secretary of Defense William Perry after the North Korean rocket test in 1998. The review would provide a realistic assessment of developments since Kim Jung Un took power a year ago. It would focus on the still ongoing political transition that has led to questions about regime stability, the future of Pyongyang's domestic policy given hints that Kim may dismantle his father's legacy, and the foreign policy direction of a stronger, more confident North Korea. Any review must also consider options for firming up existing defense programs and exploring new ones -- such as theater ballistic missile defense -- to safeguard the security of the United States and its allies against a North Korea bristling with nuclear-tipped missiles.

The United States doesn't need to scrap its entire North Korea policy. It should still seek a United Nations resolution, if only to protect its credibility and that of the U.N., since both warned North Korea against testing its rocket. But the administration should also be thinking ahead about how to communicate with Pyongyang after the U.N. debate, particularly if China prevents it from enacting tougher measures against the North.

It is hard to understand why the United States and its European allies hold fairly regular senior-level negotiations with Iran despite Teheran's bad behavior but refuse to hold similar sessions with Pyongyang. No one thinks that the North Koreans would behave if only U.S. officials spoke with them but such meetings could be useful, first exploring the possibility of finding common ground that would serve the interests of both sides, then possibly more substantive discussions that would start to address security challenges posed by the North.

One approach where it may be possible to find common ground would be to replace the armistice in effect since the Korean War almost six decades ago with permanent arrangements to end hostilities on the peninsula, and to link that effort to limiting, reducing, and eliminating the threat from the North's weapons of mass destruction. That would address both sides' security concerns -- the threat Pyongyang believes the United States poses, and Washington's concerns about the North's growing nuclear and missile programs. Such an approach might also yield an important diplomatic bonus by securing Chinese support because it shows Beijing that the United States is interested in more than just pressuring and destabilizing the North.

Four years from now, as President Obama's second term draws to an end, the American public will focus on his domestic and foreign policy legacy, from his landmark health care program to ending the war in Afghanistan. What does he want his record on North Korea to show: a hard problem more or less contained or a rogue state armed with dozens of nuclear weapons well on its way to threatening California?

Yonhap News via /Getty Images


After Abbas

The Palestinian president will either be toppled from his throne, or die on it. And that may be Hamas's chance to pounce.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations last month and brought his people one step closer to statehood. But amid all the fanfare, Western diplomats quietly conceded that the General Assembly vote to upgrade the Palestinians' U.N. mission was not simply a step taken to advance their national project. It also reflected a desire to counter Hamas's growing influence, particularly after the Gaza-based terrorist group claimed victory in its war with Israel in November.

In the overwhelming vote (138 to 9) to confer nonmember observer status on the Palestinians, the international community may have outsmarted itself. Abbas's next steps are entirely unclear -- he has threatened to pursue membership in the International Criminal Court, which he could then use as a bludgeon against Israel, but that tactic could take years to bear fruit.

The aging Abbas, however, may not have years. The Palestinian leader is 77 years old, a heavy smoker, and an incessant traveler. He reportedly underwent treatment for prostate cancer a decade ago, and in 2010 he was admitted six times to a Jordanian hospital for unspecified health reasons. In short, he's not a picture of perfect fitness. This raises the inconvenient question: Who will follow in his footsteps?

Right now, the answer is Hamas. According to Palestinian Basic Law, Article 37, if the presidency of the Palestinian Authority becomes vacant "the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council shall temporarily assume the powers and duties of the Presidency of the National Authority for a period not to exceed sixty (60) days, during which free and direct elections to elect a new President shall take place."

As it turns out, the current speaker is none other than Aziz Dweik. In January 2006, the last time Palestinians held legislative elections, Dweik ran and won on Hamas's Change and Reform list. When Hamas emerged with a majority after that vote, he was sworn in as speaker.

Who is this leader waiting in the wings? He has spent two decades being pursued by Israel. In 1992, Dweik was one of 415 Hamas members exiled to Lebanon by Israel for their involvement in the nascent terrorist group. Following the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the Israelis arrested him for being a member of Hamas. In June 2009, Dweik was released from prison, but was rearrested this January for "involvement in terrorist activities." He was released again, only months ago, in July.

Of course, Dweik isn't a shoo-in. Succession does not always proceed according to law, and the PLO could still appoint someone from its own ranks if Abbas could no longer lead that body. However, a power struggle is a recipe for another ugly clash between the PLO and Hamas -- perhaps a reprise of the bloody 2007 civil war, in which Hamas seized the Gaza Strip. And right now, Abbas's health and political fortunes are the only things standing in the way of this chaotic scenario.

Abbas's political standing could be just as disconcerting as his advancing age. Since Hamas drubbed Abbas's secular Fatah party in the 2006 election and pushed his security forces out of Gaza in 2007, Abbas has leaned heavily on the United States and Israel for military, intelligence, and financial assistance to maintain his tenuous grip on the West Bank. His government, meanwhile, has become ossified, eroding his support among many West Bankers.

In September, frustration boiled over when the Palestinian Authority's (PA) coffers began to dry up and government workers' salaries went unpaid, prompting thousands of Palestinians to pour into the streets. The demonstrations raised troubling questions about whether the PA might soon collapse. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's recent threats to withhold PA tax revenues for several months have only revived those concerns.

Abbas continues to hang on, but he still doesn't seem to stand for anything other than the perpetuation of his own rule. He has failed to deliver peace, yet will not engage in violence against Israel. This "neither here nor there" approach explains why he was basically irrelevant during the most recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas.

The question of who might succeed Abbas is not a new one. According to a leaked U.S. State Department cable, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warned Americans as far back as 2006 that a "political vacuum" would elevate Dweik to the role of president. Other Palestinian insiders have also quietly expressed concerns about the Palestinian Authority's succession plan.

Abbas, however, refuses to name a successor. Taking a page from deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, his old ally, he has no vice president and no heir apparent. Instead, he has led campaigns to weaken potential challengers. Mohammed Dahlan, the popular strongman of Gaza under the late Yasir Arafat, has endured particularly nasty treatment from Abbas, who has made moves to freeze his assets abroad.

This October's municipal elections in the West Bank brought a handful of renegade Fatah leaders into office. This new crop of relatively unknown secularists may yet represent the future of the Palestinians. Ghassan Shakaa, for example, garnered attention in the New York Times as a leading figure "among dozens of Fatah activists ousted from the party [in October] because they had decided to run independently." But rather than embracing political diversity, Abbas has reportedly isolated these figures -- most recently refusing them a role in the festivities after the Palestinians earned their upgrade at the United Nations.

Abbas's potential challengers cannot carve out a niche for themselves at the ballot box either. Owing to the bitter rift between Hamas and Fatah, Abbas refuses to hold new national elections. And Washington -- fearful that Hamas might win again at the polls -- has his back on this.

In other words, Abbas has solidified his position as the unquestioned leader of the Palestinians, and he will continue in that position either until a time of his own choosing or until his demise.

To put it mildly, this is not a viable strategy for maintaining a partner for peace in the West Bank. Nor is supporting a bureaucratic maneuver at the United Nations, which merely granted Abbas a temporary boost in approval. Such moves, in fact, only exacerbate the brewing Palestinian succession crisis because they bolster the current leadership without pushing for much-needed reform.

If the international community is serious about Palestinian statehood, it should start thinking about who is next in line to govern the Palestinian people and how to forge the infrastructure needed to ensure good governance. More importantly, it should demand that Abbas take steps to ensure that legitimate contenders have the opportunities to ensure their political voices are heard.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images