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?