Last April, when a North Korean missile launch appeared to be imminent, this newspaper published my commentary urging the U.S. to "get tough with North Korea." My determination that U.S. actions to date had produced little or no effect in deterring the Democratic People's Republic of Korea — the DPRK — from engaging in irresponsible, downright hostile behavior, and that an unmistakable stance of intolerance toward further provocations was needed, was based on four years of experience negotiating in and with the DPRK.
Of course, characteristically, we conveniently put our thoughts regarding the pesky North Koreans on the back-burner when the missile broke up shortly after launch. More of the same, we figured.
But less than a year later, on Dec. 12, the DPRK defied expectations, surprising the world — and probably themselves — by conducting an apparently successful launch of a multistage missile, putting a small payload into orbit and, more significantly, demonstrating the true capability of a weapons-deliverable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Commendably, the United Nations Security Council, including the DPRK's only so-called ally, China, condemned the launch and imposed additional sanctions. The North Korean reaction was particularly telling: Not only did the North declare an end to the Six-Party Talks process, it admitted that this missile launch demonstrates an ICBM capability and vowed to press ahead with another nuclear weapon test — and, chillingly, clearly implied that North Korea will have a nuclear-armed missile capability designed to attack the United States.
The North Korean declarations brought me back to early September 1998, when, as a member of a negotiating team, I was sitting across the table from senior North Korean officials. Just a day or two earlier, the DPRK had launched a multi-stage missile that broke up over Japan. The North Koreans first denied the launch, then, a short time later, claimed that a satellite had been placed in orbit, broadcasting a message of greetings from their "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il. It was that same day, shortly after a reminder from our chief of delegation about all the food aid that we had provided and intended to provide to the starving North, that his DPRK counterpart took umbrage at a phrase or the tone of our delegation chief's line. Out of the mouth of the female North Korean translator, sitting directly across from me, came the harsh declaration, "We will turn you into a sea of fire!" None of us on our side of the table thought much of it at the time. We essentially laughed it off — we had heard it before, and we would hear it again. But, really, who talks like that, and at what point should they be taken seriously? Is it, perhaps, when they actually have nuclear bombs adapted to missile warheads and the missiles to deliver them?
North Korea has long been something of a curiosity, provoking fascination with its bizarre antics and declarations, punctuated by our sympathy over widespread famine, our sadness for the plight of its isolated and repressed population. We voice our concerns over various "provocations" that include assassinations of foreign officials and deadly attacks on ships and neighboring islands — events that should cause us to seriously ask, "Really, who acts like that?" We collaborate with both friends and other nations to condemn these and tighten up existing sanctions and even impose additional ones. All this has little effect, and we hope that any danger from the DPRK is only a North Korean pipe dream. Meanwhile, the North Korean propaganda machine cranks out videos depicting American cities on fire. More of the same …
Then, this week, on the day of the State of the Union address, the DPRK, under Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, again defies the rest of the world and conducts a demonstration detonation of a nuclear warhead — more powerful and allegedly much more compact and advanced than its two predecessors. Is it not time to acknowledge that a DPRK armed with nuclear-tipped missiles is not only no longer a remote possibility but is rapidly becoming an existential threat to the U.S. and our friends and allies? What are the "red lines" beyond which we and the rest of the world cannot afford to have North Korea cross?
When must we act? And when we must act, what will we do? These questions must be priorities for U.S. decision makers and our allies. My experience in dealing with the DPRK has led me to believe that everything stated by U.S. politicians and in the media is taken at face value. When our leaders talk about "war-weariness," the DPRK believes that we do not have the stomach to engage in any more military action, despite the obligations we have with allies such as South Korea and Japan. When our president makes "nation-building at home" a stated priority, the North Korean leadership is further emboldened.
We should immediately seek to meet with South Korea and China — together — and include Japan and Russia, if they are willing, to collaborate on not only enforcing and adding to existing sanctions but defining the "red lines," determining how we can work to prevent North Korea from crossing them, and agreeing on what we will and must do if they are crossed.
The North Koreans have shown their hand. It is time for us to give them a glimpse of ours. Clearly defined, clearly stated red lines must be an urgent priority, lest the "sea of fire" become all too real a possibility.
Bruce S. Lemkin is an international aerospace, defense and energy consultant based in Crownsville. He served as deputy under secretary of the Air Force (International Affairs) from 2003-2010, and was the chief negotiator of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization from 1999-2000. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.