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Transition 2012

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Tracking the Issues: North Korea No Easy Election Issue

by Newsteam Staff
April 13, 2012

A visitor poses with a soldier on guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket April 8, 2012 (Bobby Yip /Courtesy Reuters.) A visitor poses with a soldier on guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket April 8, 2012 (Bobby Yip /Courtesy Reuters.)


Foreign Policy’s Daniel W. Drezner said Thursday that North Korean’s attempted satellite launch is the perfect opportunity for GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney to test his foreign policy mettle, especially on “an issue where Obama’s record has been radically imperfect and a solid critique should resonate.”

Romney condemned the launch in a statement, criticizing the Obama administration for not approaching North Korea from “a position of strength.”

But the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Jay Bookman, responding to Romney’s statement, says there is no partisan high ground on this issue. “North Korea poses an extremely difficult challenge that has befuddled presidents of both parties going all the way back to Harry Truman,” writes Bookman. “When a country has nothing and wants nothing, there are very few tools available to influence its behavior.”

Even Drezner notes the North Korea issue isn’t an easy one. “Sure, there’s no magic solution or anything, but attacking Obama on this issue is at least a way for Romney to articulate exactly what he means when he signals his hawkishness,” he writes.

Shortly after the launch, President Barack Obama called North Korea’s rocket launch “provocative” and ended a food aid agreement reached with Pyonyang in February.  Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin says the launch essentially ended “the Obama administration’s year-long effort to open up a new path for negotiations with the Hermit Kingdom,” adding that “in the end, no matter what the Obama administration does, there’s no politically viable strategy that can solve the problem.”

The White House was left with few options when North Korea announced the rocket launch, according to a Washington Post editorial, noting “it’s not likely that the United States can inflict major punishment on the North through new sanctions or persuade China to do so.”

For more on the candidates’ stances, check out CFR’s Issue Tracker on The Candidates and North Korea.

Suggested Other Reading:

Pyongyang’s unsuccessful missile launch delays a new nuclear threat but raises disturbing prospects for violence on the Korean Peninsula, says CFR President Richard N. Haass.

Going ahead with the launch — regardless of its success or failure — is “only the most recent episode in a long history of unpunished provocation” on North Korea’s part, going back to at least 1968, says Jennifer Lind in Foreign Affairs. But a lack of global retaliation over the years has been in large part due to a combination of three things, Lind says: the “madman” image its leaders paint for themselves, the regional threat of its own collapse, and its nuclear program.

It was an unusual but savvy move for Pyongyang to admit the rocket’s failure, according to The Economist. “On balance, the missile debacle looks laughable, but isn’t. It appears likely to increase the regime’s international isolation, which tends to make it more threatening. It is also likely to increase the young Mr Kim’s credibility gap at home, which may make him more repressive.” It could also mean that another North Korean nuclear test is on its way, following the precedent of a failed launch Pyongyang never admitted to in 2009.

The rocket launch may have failed, but there is still plenty to fear from the North Korean space program, says Jeffery Kluger in TIME, including the learning experience a failed launch can provide.

Contributing Editor Gayle S. Putrich and Senior Editor Toni Johnson

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