There has been lots of good commentary since the missile launch on how to respond. Ideas have included a big bang deal to create a breakthrough, malign neglect, confrontation, and just neglect. Most of it castigates Washington officials for policy incoherence, lack of cultural understanding, lack of guts, etc. All that strikes me as pretty unfair though, especially now that, living in SK, it has become far more clear to me just how unpredictable NK really is. So give Washington (Seoul and Tokyo) a break. Like the financial crisis, no one really knows what to do. NK is just too erratic, opaque and downright weird. (Remember Kim Jong Il is on record saying long hair on men is bad for socialism. Also: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4157121.stm.)
All the handwringing overlooks that the likely response is probably more of the same – tedious, torturesome negotiations, with a huge amount of skepticism that the North Koreans are probably negotiating in bad faith and cheating, and a general goal of slowing down as much as possible the nuclear and ballistic march and more broadly containing NK bad behavior as much as possible.
This uninspiring ‘muddling through’ is probably about the best course anyway. If this feels incoherent, then so be it, because the NK problem is too messy and unpredictable for some big aggressive framework. If we must give it a title so that it can be called a ‘strategy,’ how about, “chronic threat management through skeptical negotiation”?
In other words, its pretty clear that NK probably won’t meaningfully de-nuclearize or de-missile-ize (as S Africa or the Ukraine did). As Brian Meyers has noted, the confrontation with the US has become central to NK existential justification. Without that standoff, NK just becomes a poor man’s SK, likely to last about as long as the GDR after the Wall fell. Any ‘big deal’ is likely to die in artificial NK objections over this or that detail, etc., etc. Even if they agreed to some big deal, they’d probably cheat anyway. Simply ignoring them is not an option, because S Korea and Japan simply can’t. Similarly, confrontation risks 20 million people in Seoul (SK’s proximate city-hostage gift to NK that makes a hard stance almost impossible).
15 years after the Agreed Framework, it is pretty obvious that obfuscating, stalling for time, flim-flamming the 6 party talks, asking for favors with faux-goodwill, etc. is not just a negotiating strategy for the North, it is its foreign policy goal. The process, and keeping the process going indefinitely, is the whole point. It keeps NK relevant in the world, coughs up gifts from time to time, justifies domestic misery to its people. As JL Gaddis said about the SU, we are probably just going to have to hang tough on this one until NK finally implodes on its own.
The big factors in NK foreign policy – NK elite and Chinese opinion – are simply out of our (SK, Japan, US) hands. So the best attitude is the same we have always pursued – cautious long-term crisis management, sticking close to the allies, trying to get deals if possible, shooting for small betterments like family reunifications, trying to stop the worst, most threatening security externalities (like dealing with AQ Khan or Syria) unilaterally if necessary. Its sloppy and headache-inducing, but the alternatives are worse.