Flying blind on N. Korea

Two significant anniversaries are coming up in North Korea. One, on Thursday, marks a year since Kim Jong Un  became the youthful leader of the hermit state. The other, next Monday, is more important still — it is the anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder, Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung.

Speculation is mounting in Washington that the North Korean military machine might launch an intermediate missile deployed on its east coast in the coming days in an anniversary show of might. A South Korean report that Pyongyang was preparing for a fourth nuclear test was denied on Monday, but while the dangers of a nuclear strike by North Korea remain remote, opportunities for a catastrophic miscalculation are in place. 

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We have seen this movie before, but this time it’s a horror movie in a region where conventional notions of nuclear deterrence do not apply. Politicians and North Korea experts have been warning for some time of the potential for miscalculation. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on CBS’s “Face The Nation” on Sunday noted that “more than once, wars have started by accident, and this is a very serious situation.” And Russian President Vladimir Putin himself yesterday urged everyone to calm down, saying there was a real risk of conflict that could make Chernobyl look like a “fairy tale.”

Yet this crisis is not new and features a glaring lack of serious mediators with name recognition. Who was the last American to meet Kim? Dennis Rodman. 

Adm. Mike Mullen made a frank comment about Iran before leaving his post as Joint Chiefs chairman. He acknowledged that “we are not talking to Iran, so we don’t understand each other. If something happens, it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right, that there will be miscalculation.” And in that part of the world, such a scenario “would be extremely dangerous.”

He was talking about Iran, with which the United States does not have diplomatic relations, but he could also have been talking about North Korea.

We are flying blind on North Korea, which has shut down its emergency military hotline with the South and pulled out of its last remaining joint project with Seoul. It’s hard to know who’s running the show in Pyongyang, though former U.S. negotiator Chris Hill is convinced that Kim is a symbol and that the hard-line military calls the shots.

The Chinese actually do talk to the North Koreans, and, at last, seem to be losing patience with their client state. But while China might be cooperating with the U.S. on back-channel talks, its strategic interests on the peninsula do not coincide with those of Washington.

The U.S. reaction to the escalating tensions, set in motion by North Korea’s third nuclear test, which prompted China to back a U.N. resolution ordering harsher sanctions, has been firm and clear. The Obama administration is now taking pains to avoid mixed messages. The U.S. and allies are now trying to tamp down the tensions while taking military precautions. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has postponed a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile in order to avoid a “misperception.”

America needs to play the long game. Again, that’s Mullen’s stated view. He was talking about Iran, but he could have been talking about North Korea, too.

The administration should stick to its policy of “strategic patience,” but now is the time to be preparing to avert the next crisis in the most heavily armed corner of the globe. 

Penketh is a long-term foreign correspondent who writes on security issues from Paris. She is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog.