Just back from quality time with Kim Jong Un, Dennis Rodman delivered a message: U.S. President Barack Obama should give North Korea's dictator a call. The administration has been quick to dismiss his suggestion, as has most of the press. And it certainly hasn't helped Rodman's argument that North Korea is now threatening to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against American targets in response to new United Nations sanctions. Still, while there is a strong element of truth to these criticisms, Rodman may be onto something here.
In the aftermath of the North's recent missile and nuclear tests, there is widespread agreement in Washington that the Obama administration's policy of strategic patience has failed. It has done nothing to stop North Korean provocations aimed at our South Korean ally or to slow down Pyongyang's growing weapons of mass destruction programs. Moreover, the cycle of action and reaction we have been caught in for the past several years (they test, we sanction), has had little effect on Pyongyang, its WMD programs, or its overall behavior despite the administration's claims to the contrary.
The latest developments in this time loop seem to have been lifted straight from the movie Groundhog Day, in which a TV weather forecaster finds himself repeating the same day over and over again. Following almost universal denunciation of the third North Korean nuclear test, the United States sought international sanctions. Speculation that China, Pyongyang's closest ally, had finally become fed up with North Korean misbehavior has proven to be untrue. After weeks of U.S.-Chinese haggling at the United Nations, sanctions now emerge that are much more limited than the United States wanted. American officials trumpet that this resolution will have an important impact on North Korea's nuclear program (just like the previous ones). Sound familiar?
One prominent Republican expert's recent observation that "strategic patience" is more like a "strategic coma" is an assessment that is shared by many Democrats as well. That consensus has manifested itself in a Senate bill passed at the end of February that calls for a comprehensive review of the administration's North Korea policy, including alternative approaches. The point is, since the current approach doesn't appear to be working, shouldn't the United States be seriously considering other ones? But the odds-on betting is that the State Department will just dust off a few well-worn talking points, meld them together, and send them to the Hill.
Which brings us back to Rodman. Granted, he doesn't know anything about North Korea except what he learned during his recent whirlwind tour of Pyongyang. But "Dennis the Menace" may have unwittingly stumbled onto an important truth about how to deal with Pyongyang. There can be a diplomatic upside to a political system based on one-person, one-family rule. North Korean leaders have a history of issuing "on-the-spot guidance" -- pronouncements that instantly set policy. So reaching out directly to Kim Jong Un might not be such a bad idea, particularly since he is still new on the job.