Just as Obama was getting his presidential teeth into the Israel-Palestine issue – with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Washington last week and Obama’s Middle East tour next – North Korea goes and finds a window in his crowded timetable, forcing itself on his attention with a nuclear test and missile firings. But, although things can go horribly wrong, North Korea presents a much more straightforward problem than Israel-Palestine and the wider Middle East.
That may seem over-optimistic following North Korea’s announcement that it is abandoning the truce that ended the Korean war in 1953. And it may even look simple-minded to readers of the various interpretations in western news media of why Pyongyang has conducted the test explosion and missile launches and adopted a harder rhetoric towards its adversaries.
As background to this, we should remember that this is a state that preferred to let its population starve than to cut down the bloated size of its military establishment. And if the business with nuclear weapons and missiles is all about an internal power struggle over the succession to Kim Jong-il, or if it is the political equivalent of a disturbed cry for help and attention, the prospect seems to be continued knife-edge relations with a politically or psychologically unstable state in which change is possible but not certain and its direction is unpredictable.
Moreover, there are very few policy options for the US in relations with North Korea. Threats of military action are pointless, counter-productive and would not be carried through by the US (as the Chiefs of Staff tell each President upon his arrival in office) because of lack of information about the location of key targets and the near certainty of retribution against South Korea. And trade sanctions offer extremely limited leverage because of China’s refusal hitherto to abandon North Korea, even if the two governments have very different policies and approaches on a whole range of economic and strategic issues. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to use robust sanctions against a regime that has no compunction about letting the people of the country bear the brunt of the effects, and the effects can be catastrophic for the people as UN sanctions were for Iraqis under Saddam Hussein during the 1990s.
So not only is North Korea dangerous and loathsome, but it is also not possible to do much about it.
Yes, well, I do actually think that is straightforward compared to the problems Obama confronts in trying to bring sustainable peace to Israel-Palestine.
Norman Dombey points out that there is recent history showing how determined and consistent diplomacy can and does work with North Korea. He cites the experience of the Bush administration, the recent one in its otherwise unsuccessful second term. He could also have cited the success of the Clinton administration in negotiating an earlier deal around nuclear technology.
What happened to these successes? Well, Bush wasted the first one by including North Korea in his “axis of evil” speech in early 2002 and North Korea responded by discarding the deal, kicking out international nuclear inspectors, grabbing nuclear material and starting to reprocess it. And the second was probably lost by the firm tone (interpreted in the North as hostile) adopted by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak after he was elected in December 2007.
In other words, given that force is out of the question and trade sanctions of limited effectiveness, experience suggests that if you hold your nose you can talk with North Korea and get effective agreements but if you blurt out how loathsome the state is, it’s back to confrontation and danger.
It’s not a pretty choice, but it’s a choice and there’s a viable policy at the other end. Fred Kaplan argues that Obama’s ideal response to the North Korean nuclear test is a shrug but that for domestic and international reasons (silencing critics, keeping the centre ground happy, reassuring Japan and South Korea, not encouraging Iran to copy Pyongyang, and reminding Russia and China that complacency is not an option) he has to do something. Kaplan recommends doing the least possible – maintain calm, put a bit of a squeeze on North Korean international economic assets, try to win China’s agreement, and let the issue slip quietly to the back burner again – while keeping an eye open for the slightest hint of a diplomatic overture from Kim Jong-il, to which the response should be immediate and active, but not high octane or high profile. That is how previous stand-offs ended.
This approach points to a policy response to the nuclear test that is a great deal less dramatic than the test itself. This will not alter the basic situation in Northeast Asia and does nothing to ease the situation of the people of North Korea. But it limits the damage and offers the chance of a way to reduce the dangers.
It might appeal to Obama because it is based on refusing to play the North Korean game. Pyongyang has upped the ante; Obama’s approach to politics and his ability to reframe issues in a different light suggest that his instinctive response may be to refuse to follow suit.
This is the talent that Obama and his team need to bring to bear if they are going to find a way through the Israel-Palestine labyrinth. But a great deal more than that is also needed because Israel is a component of domestic US politics in a way that the Korean peninsula simply is not.
Furthermore, the stakes for the US and for Obama are considerably higher in the case of Israel-Palestine: Israel is a nuclear armed state and Iran might be heading in that direction; relations with Iran and the possibility of peace in and with Iraq are all strongly influenced by the Israel-Palestine conflict; further east, violent conflicts and US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan are likewise dangerously flavoured by Israel-Palestine, and not only is Pakistan nuclear capable but so is India.
In Israel and Palestine more or less everybody knows that the only short or medium-term peaceful solution is a two-state agreement. It is supported by majority opinion among Israelis and among Palestinians. It is what the people want.
Many Palestinians may hate Israel and wish it dead but the vast majority acknowledge its existence and, albeit with gritted teeth, its right to exist. What they don’t acknowledge is its right to occupy. But that does not deter the vast majority from accepting that a two-state solution is what works.
That means that those who actively oppose a two-state solution are primarily a relatively small number of Israelis who want peace eventually but whose sights are set on in the much longer term on purely and narrowly Israeli terms and are playing a very long and hard game to get there. Everybody else knows that and also knows that each month that goes by makes the two-state solution just a little less feasible.
In the end, Obama will not force a breakthrough simply by reframing the issue. He will not force a breakthrough by winning friends and influence leaders in the wider Middle East. He will not force a breakthrough by persuading Palestinian leaders to submerge their differences for long enough (several years) to stand forth as reliable negotiating counterparts, nor by persuading them to ease up on their demand for the right of refugees to return.
He will force a breakthrough if – and only if – he can change opinion enough in the USA that the administration is supported by Congress in a straightforward assertion of power towards Israel: agree to a viable peace agreement or be abandoned. Until he can make that power play, or, put differently, as long as Israel can ultimately rely on US support – for so long, a mutually acceptable peaceful settlement is not possible.