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Wrong message on North Korea

| Monday, April 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The Obama administration is revealing a dangerous naiveté regarding North Korea. In response to its threat to attack the United States and its allies, senior administration officials outlined plans for a limited “response in kind.” It is hard to conceive of a more misplaced message to send to Pyongyang at this uncertain moment.

To a North Korean regime with a record of indifference toward the welfare of its own people, the U.S. promise of only a limited response to any military provocation is tantamount to an invitation for Pyongyang to strike South Korea, Japan or even the United States — knowing that it would face not overwhelming retaliation but rather a modest and manageable tit for tat.

Rather than use U.S. military power to deter North Korea from taking any actions, the White House has ceded initiative and escalatory dominance to Pyongyang.

The first challenge in statecraft is to understand the perspective of all the nations with relevant interests. Here, the major challenge to U.S. strategy toward North Korea is to recognize the role of China. President Barack Obama is fond of saying that North Korea's threats and belligerence “only deepen its isolation.” Except they don't.

Despite perennial assertions that China's leadership is tiring of the conduct of its client state, the facts tell a different story — one in which North Korea can continue to count on its most important ally. At the end of the day, China prefers a North Korean buffer, even with the Kim family in charge.

And thanks to recent White House ruminations, the Kim regime can conclude that any allied response to whatever aggression it may be pondering would be limited.

Washington and its allies must understand that resilient nuclear threats from states such as North Korea seldom lend themselves to quick fixes or grand bargains. Instead, those allies should combine military deterrence and human rights advocacy as part of a long-term solution.

From a military perspective, making clear before any shots are fired that the United States will respond proportionally only highlights the U.S. reluctance to offer our allies in South Korea and Japan the full benefit of our security umbrella.

Washington and its allies would be well served to reprise the emphasis they placed on human rights and nonviolent political transition during the final decade of the Cold War. While North Korea is hardly fertile ground for a dissent movement, history shows that even in such tightly controlled environments, some will one day form a political opposition. But they will need help.

A limited but perceptible increase in independent media focused on North Korea — especially defector-run radio stations — provides such an opportunity. Thus did Poland under communist martial law eventually become free — especially with the tailwind of nearly united political support from the free world combined with convincing military deterrence. The same can happen in North Korea in our time.

Jay Lefkowitz was President George W. Bush's special envoy for North Korean human-rights issues. Christian Whiton was deputy envoy and is the author of the forthcoming book “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.”

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