This article first appeared in Standpoint, Britain’s new culture and politics monthly.
If America is serious in confronting the threat posed by the regime of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, it should stop traveling the road paved by several of Mr. Obama’s predecessors, including President Bush during his second term. Playing diplomacy with a regime that prefers playing with fire is analogous to joining a go tournament armed only with deep knowledge of the rules of chess.
To win in Mr. Kim’s game, one must use the same rules he plays with, and meet threat with threat and action with action. Answering nuclear tests with Security Council denouncements will gain the applause of the European striped pants set, but not the attention of the Dear Leader, his third son Kim Jong-un, or others of the Pyongyang competitors in the race to inherit the dictatorial throne.
Even short of outright assault meant to end the Stalinist rule, certain measures can help. In response to the recent militant maneuvering by Kim’s regime, America could impose a naval blockade of North Korea as soon as possible to avert any exportation of weapons of mass destruction. Washington could also accelerate the research, production and deployment of missile defense systems. Or it could conduct visible reconnaissance flights over North Korean airspace. At least, it could attempt to get its allies to help strangle any financial resources that help Pyongyang develop weapons systems while the country’s citizens die of malnutrition.
But these and other confrontational measures are unlikely to be deployed by the Obama administration anytime soon. For now, the new president is committed to diplomatic, non-confrontational policies that he believes are better at solving the world’s problems than those ascribed to his predecessor. And here is where the UN Secretary General, Mr. Ki-Moon Ban can lend a hand.
To be sure, it is uncomfortable for a Korean-born U.N. chief to deal with problems directly affecting his home country. But what is it they teach in creative writing courses at college? Write what you know.
Assuming the U.N. leadership in 2008, Mr. Bam was convinced he could negotiate an end to the war in Darfur, help to find peace in the Middle East, and reverse climate changes. He knows better now. Sudan’s president Omar al Bashir turned out to be a two-faced negotiator (and an indicted war criminal to boot); the Israeli-Arab conflict is not yet resolved; and everyone is still talking about the weather, while no one is doing anything.
As a head of an organization that is laughed at in some of the countries involved (and despised by others) Mr. Ban failed to appreciate the limitation of his position. Also, Mr. Ban dived early on into crises which he knew only superficially, failing to appreciate the complications involved in solving them. Not so when it comes to the Korean peninsula. As of yet, however, he wanted to avoid dealing with problems in his home country.
“I am representing the United Nations,” Mr. Ban told me recently. But he didn’t shut the door on Korean diplomacy either. “I believe that my experience as the former South Korean foreign minister will be useful whenever it comes to my mandate, whenever I have to deal with this directly, personally, on this issue,” he said. As of now, he added, no one has directly asked him to intervene.
Close aids told me Mr. Ban is not eager to assume any visible role on the North Korean stand-off. But according to several world diplomats who have spoken recently to Mr. Ban, he is trying quietly to act behind the scenes.
As South Korea’s foreign minister, Mr. Ban was an avid advocate of the “Sunshine Policy,” favoring openness toward the North. That policy was also favored by the administration of President Clinton, and - after dubbing Pyongyang as a top member of the “axis of evil” - President Bush also retorted back to it during his second term. As of yet, Mr. Obama has failed to replace that failed approach.
But there are signs of change in tone in Seoul, where the government of President Lee Myung Bak has recently ratcheted up its rhetoric and signaled it was ready to become more confrontational with the North than its predecessors. Mr. Ban, who believes that as secretary general he should reflect the will of the countries that elected him to the post, will comply with such a turn.
His involvement, surely, will do little to reduce the North Korean menace, but it might add to his prestige as Secretary General. And some of us will not shed tears if, in the process, it will expose the futility of relying solely on soft power when dealing with certain crises.