Hillary Clinton will arrive in South Korea on the 19th of this month when she makes the third stop of her maiden tour as secretary of state. At least at this moment, the visit to Seoul looks like an afterthought, sandwiched between Tokyo and Jakarta, which come before, and Beijing, the last city on the itinerary.
Of course, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, out of the spotlight for some time, could make Seoul the most watched portion of the trip. He could do that by, for instance, lighting off a missile while Mrs. Clinton is on the Korean peninsula. On Friday, just before leaving on her trip, she warned the North Koreans not to take any “provocative” steps.
It is clear, however, that they are about to: reports in the last few days indicate the North Koreans are preparing to test both short- and long-range missiles this month. It is the expected launch of their biggest missile that is of greater interest, of course. In September, a South Korean paper reported that last year a U.S. satellite detected an engine-ignition test for a North Korean missile capable of hitting the western United States. Then, on the third of this month, Yonhap News Agency stated that a South Korean defense official, who was not named, disclosed that a train was carrying what appeared to be a Taepodong-2 to a launch site.
Should we be concerned? A July 2006 test of a Taepodong ended in apparent failure 40 seconds into the flight. Yet missile-building nations learn as much from their failures as from their successes. We know a Taepodong-2 can reach Alaska, and the version on the train probably can hit the West Coast. With time, the North Koreans will be able to land a weapon any spot on earth.
They already have detonated a nuclear device, which fizzled after it was set off in October 2006. We don’t know whether Kim Jong Il now has mastered the difficulties of putting one of those devices on top of one of his missiles, but his technicians are extremely capable and have surprised us, especially at the end of last decade when they skipped a step and went from building one-stage missiles to experimenting with three-stage ones. We can only speculate as to the capability of the missile spotted on that train, but we can say it’s essentially “a Taepodong-3,” as one South Korean observer called it.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said we can shoot down whatever the North Koreans can put up, and that assurance is comforting. But only for now. As history shows, offensive weaponry almost always defeats defensive systems. So it looks as if Mrs. Clinton will have her work cut out for her when she arrives in the South Korean capital.
And in the Chinese one. The North Koreans are dangerous, but they pose a real threat to the international community because Beijing backs them up. Since the end of the Cold War, the Chinese have been the primary sponsors — and protectors — of the ruling Kim family. In recent times, China has provided about 90 percent of the North’s oil, 80 percent of its consumer goods, and 45 percent of its food, most of this shipped for free or on concessionary terms. On the fourth of this month, Pyongyang announced that China had offered it aid. The assistance, probably food, oil, and raw materials, replaces commodities that Seoul, now under a conservative administration, is no longer providing to the North Koreans.
China has made it clear that, whatever Mr. Kim does, it will make sure his miserable regime in Pyongyang survives. The Bush administration, and especially the State Department, was quick to praise China’s role in efforts to disarm Pyongyang. The Chinese hosted three-party talks in April 2003 and six-party ones starting the following August. Yet during this period, Beijing only promoted dialogue, not a solution. The Chinese have, whether it was their intention or not, given the North Koreans the one thing they needed most to make themselves a nuclear weapons power — time.
Patient Bush policies failed to persuade China to rein in its only formal military ally, North Korea. Now it’s the turn of Secretary of State Clinton. If she is going to succeed where past administrations — including her husband’s — have failed, she will have to bring extraordinary pressure to bear on Beijing.
Many Americans think Washington is in no position to do so, but that’s not true. And now is the perfect time to begin leaning on China. The Chinese, after all, have the world’s fastest slowing economy at this time, due in large part to the rapid decline in exports. And China’s largest export market, by far, is the United States. How important? This week, the Commerce Department reported that America’s 2008 trade deficit with China hit a record $266.3 billion, which was up four percent from 2007’s whopping deficit, also a record.
If Washington chose to do so, it could undermine the Chinese economy by doing two things: holding Beijing to the promises it made to join the World Trade Organization and carefully inspecting Chinese products entering the United States. The Bush administration did not strictly enforce America’s trade rights or keep out defective Chinese goods, but nothing says President Obama has to continue lax enforcement policies. Because the Chinese depend on selling merchandise and agricultural products to Americans to keep their economy going, Washington could begin to exact a price on Beijing for access to the American market. During the past half decade, the Chinese never hesitated in demanding their price for cooperation over North Korea, and now, when we hold important cards, we should be at least as tough.
Unfortunately, senior officials in the Obama administration are beginning to think that we will have to accept North Korea as a nuclear power. Yet instead of accepting “reality,” now is the time for the United States to change it. We have the power to do so by separating Kim Jong Il from his only supporter. The only issue is whether the president has the will to act. A good indication is what Mrs. Clinton says and does during her visit to Seoul — and the one in Beijing.