Losing Iraq

It should come as no surprise that winning the peace in Iraq after winning the war a decade earlier proves harder in practice than in theory.

After years of occupation, an election and billions of dollars in U.S. funding, the all-inclusive society of Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds has failed to materialize. A new military built from the ground up as Saddam’s forces were disbanded turned tail at the first signs of organized radical resistance. Add to the transition equation a porous Syrian border in civil war, well-funded radical groups pursuing a mythologized Caliphate and a stream of foreign fighters eager for a new front — Iraq’s unresolved domestic fissures could only expand.

All of the official optimism about a new pluralistic Iraq, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, flew in the face of what political-military planners, historians and diplomats knew as far back as the late 1990’s when Iraq War I was waged.

Democracy is a tough sell.

In a region where centuries of animosity and mistrust continue to fuel a cycle of violence and counter-violence, pluralism, let alone democracy, has never been an ideal. And no amount of U.S. troop presence would change historical momentum fueled by ideological, ethnic and tribal divisions. Not at least without a new identity forged by the Iraqis themselves.

Why would the Kurds, for decades suppressed, gassed and murdered, find comfort in Baghdad under any rule but their own? The borders of modern Iraq, after all, were lines drawn by the British forcing traditional enemies together into a tentative order.

The Sunnis too, had no home in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s new Iraq. Once an oppressor-class under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, they were quickly forgotten by the new Shi’ite-dominated government.

There has never been a South Africa-styled national reconciliation. No new equality in the ebb and flow of power and pain in the Middle East. Only old wounds and new scars.

Perhaps the existential threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the latest in a long line of radicalized groups, and its military rout of Iraq’s major cities, will fuse a fractured nation into a common front. That’s the most the U.S. could hope for (and support) until Iraq’s larger fate can be addressed.

New calls for al-Maliki’s ouster will hardly solve the problem. President Obama has insisted on a “political solution” while ISIS takes Mosul and marches towards the capital. Inclusion certainly helps, but now it must be in the fight for a unified Iraq.

First Iraqis will have to rally under one flag. Then they can decide for themselves whether to create a future of partition or pluralism.

India Poised to Gain as China Troubles in South China Sea Escalate

The recent Philippine-Vietnam announcement on a coordinated response to China’s latest ocean drilling marks a significant shift in regional relations. Strains have been growing for some time. An unenforceable territorial dispute process has failed to resolve competing claims and anti-foreign sentiment is on the rise (in both Vietnam with riots against foreign factories and changing attitudes in China against buying foreign-made goods.) Any natural gas discovery will only exacerbate tensions.

This unprecedented level of public cooperation highlights a growing regional consensus. Years of China’s “peaceful rise” have ended and Southeast Asian countries appear to be gaining less and less from their trade-and-appease policies of the past.

Enter India, long the economic giant in waiting. While still a good two decades behind China in terms of overall development, the recently elected Modi government has pledged business reforms that could transform the country into a regional power. Re-kindling GDP growth rates of 7-10% could be a boon to resource rich southeast Asia eager to offset a slower-growth China.

With a near super majority Modi’s control over parliament can push change in ways that previous administrations could not. If he delivers, then significant trading and investment opportunities will follow. Average trade growth between Asean and India has already accelerated faster than Asean-China trade (25.5% vs. 15.1% from 2007 to 2011, the latest year available via Asean).

Still there are pitfalls along the way. Modi will need to steer the BJP party clear of its ultra-nationalist tendencies and historical anti-Muslim and anti-minority sentiment. His unresolved response to the slaughter of Muslim Indian citizens in 2002 while he was State Minister of Gujarat will surely be on the minds of Indonesia’s leaders. Competition may also hinder some opportunities where firms go head-to-head with each other (e.g. Thailand’s auto industry vs. southern India’s).

If India’s leaders can finally overcome decades of inertia and liberalize the economy they will find a region eager for a trade partner that doesn’t threaten their territorial integrity.

 

What Does Xi Want?

South China SeaFor so many years now the rhetoric coming out of China was “peaceful rise” and “non-intervention”. And then by stealth, diplomacy and economic might a shift occurred turning a policy of biding one’s time into action. This new muscular foreign policy, under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, increasingly fractures a status quo that has maintained stability in Asia for over half a century.

Gaining control over the Spratley Islands and laying claim to the greater South China Sea have re-drawn long established boundaries and defied international norms. This is the new China order.

While countries throughout the region, including the U.S., continue to express their diplomatic discontent in press releases and regional gatherings, an unimpeded land and sea grab expands. Other nations talk. China takes.

Water cannon volleys between Chinese and Vietnamese ships have now escalated to hard objects and ramming hulls (water cannons were also used by Chinese “enforcement” ships against the Philippines back in February). An oil rig planted its drill within Vietnam’s internationally recognized economic zone without consequence. Chinese construction has begun on a hotly contested island chain also claimed by the Philippines.

All of these actions contradict in word and deed the pronouncements of the Xi government through APEC speeches, bilateral conversations, and international gatherings that no unilateral actions would upset the status quo. Consultation, not force, was meant to guide resolution of historical tensions.

What does the Xi government really want? — A reckoning with history to re-write the past and lay claim to what was “taken” decades and even centuries ago under a selective reading of China’s place in the region and the world.

And yet China has developed at remarkable speed, largely because of this very international system that provides it access to the world’s resources and markets. In a different time, a country would have needed to field a global military presence to keep the peace, maintain the shipping lanes and facilitate international trade.

These latest confrontations and a weak international response sets a dangerous precedent for the system that has long been welcoming China’s rise. President Xi doesn’t want to embrace a world not of his own making. He wants to re-write the world’s terms to reap even larger benefits at the expense of his neighbors. That includes re-drawing boundaries of influence throughout Asia.

Until countries take heed and begin working with concerted action, China will continue to free ride and impose its considerable economic influence to mold the world in its own image. A region not united will eventually be divided.

For more on the crisis:

“Road to Fame” Explores China’s Youthful Aspirations and Angst

Six pairs of eyes follow each single child in China says a teacher at Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Drama – parents and two sets of grandparents. That puts a lot of pressure on them to succeed.

In an economy undergoing dramatic change and slowing growth, the culture of competition long thought to be an artifact of western decadence and decline, quickly becomes the new norm. The striving for opportunity and material comforts has now become a common global culture.

Director Hao Wu’s documentary “Road to Fame”, which screened to a sell-out crowd at IFC Center as part of the DOC NYC film festival, explores these themes and more as he details the first ever Broadway-China collaboration on a student production of “Fame, the Musical”.

The subjects of the documentary reflect the hopes and fears of students faced with the daunting prospects of making a living for the first times in their lives – relatively sheltered university life colliding with class distinctions and the advantages wealth brings to any budding artistic career.

RoadtoFame

China’s “Generation Now” wants what it wants and expects to get it sooner rather than later – a not unfamiliar theme in modern “20-something” generations. At some point China will have its own version of “Friends” where the lyrics “my job’s a joke, I’m broke , my love life’s D.O.A.” will resonate as loudly there as it did for a decade and more in syndication in the U.S.

The film itself, in parts sympathetic and brutally honest about the future of performing artists chasing stardom reflects much of the musical’s own messages. Not everyone makes it. Talent takes you only so far. And who you know counts for more than anyone really wants to admit.

Perhaps most striking is the film’s acceptance in China itself as Hao hinted at a major broadcast sell in the mainland during the Q&A (the film received crowd-funding via Kickstarter and several grants). Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” rhetoric not withstanding, domestic interest in China’s own aspirational classes headline even state-run publications, a stark difference to the steel manufacturing output numbers of only fifteen years ago.

Potentially sensitive political undertones, including corruption and China’s one child policy, seep through in moments. But over the five years from original filming to final editing, China has changed. Luxury-goods sales are on the decline, attributed to the crack down on corrupt politicians, though cash cards are now the preferred currency of influence. The latest Communist Party conclave announced relaxed family planning restrictions, ostensibly an end to government forced abortions, clearing the way for officially recognized multi-child families.

Here “Road to Fame” captures those moments when youthful exuberance tempers with time as students face the brink of adulthood. One can only hope that China’s “gen now” matures into the next generation of reform where widening the door to opportunity for a broader spectrum of society becomes more the norm than the rhetorical exception – something the U.S. still struggles with itself.

Asia Tensions Reach New Highs

North Korea’s rounds of provocation tempered with inaction continue to challenge regional powers. Sanctions appear to have had little affect on the new regime, but perhaps some additional pressure from China, one of their last remaining allies, has put the fear of complete isolation into the minds of Pyongyang’s leadership. Now that the new Kim has shown his father’s generals he’s no push over maybe he’ll move on to the real work at hand – the economy. After closing Kaesong (one of the few legitimate hard currency earners for the regime) the North now wants to talk with South Korea about re-opening the joint project.

Nothing coming out of the DPRK should be taken at face value, of course – the propaganda machine sounding war drums, or conciliatory economic gestures. The regime still has a horrible human rights record, continues to pursue a nuclear capability and remains a card carrying member of the pariah states club (including Iran and Syria), but in the world of international diplomacy, where there’s more gray than black and white, it’s high time for some serious talk. Bilateral, multilateral, whatever works. Talk is cheap and it isn’t a reward for rattling the region, but it may just create an opening for Kim to try out a new tactic – engagement. Missile firings along with the capture of an American citizen have failed to gain him the audience he wants, except for a repeat visit by Dennis Rodman scheduled for August.

China’s New Law of the Sea – but Might Still Doesn’t Makes Right

Meanwhile, China’s “take first, ask questions later” approach to territorial disputes in the shared waters of East and Southeast Asia continues to rankle its neighbors. We’ve reached a new low in regional relations. What started out as fishing boat bravado has escalated dramatically into full-scale military involvement. Now the cat and mouse game plays out around the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands with Japan upping the ante, and military budget, to confront an increasingly aggressive Chinese navy. Southeast Asia hasn’t fared much better. No agreement has been reached, despite diplomatic overtures for two years running, on how to resolve overlapping claims now completely subsumed under China’s self-claimed control.

Risks of accidental firings aside its now clear to everyone in the region that China’s “peaceful rise” has given way to a long rumored, now actualized policy of regional dominance. It might not be the Cold War part 2, but it certainly looks a lot like back-to-the-future with a new Chinese imperial sense of historical retribution for past colonial ills. The rest of the world has since moved on. Perhaps the “China Dream” should include a broader vision of regional integration without any one country needing to dominate.

Unfortunately for Asia the moment for a regional security architecture passed decades ago (about when NATO was formed and former aggressor states like Germany sat down with Britain and France). Now it’s left to the U.S. and its Asia pivot to cobble together long historical “frenemies” into a semi-cohesive whole. That attempt runs head long into China’s economic leverage that so far successfully divides the region (and ASEAN in particular) by holding trade hostage (from Philippine fruit imports that suddenly show signs of infestation to rare earth metals vital to Japan’s high-tech industry).

Countries are already trying to diversify their export markets and sourcing while the infinite promise of a large and expanding Chinese market comes under new strains. If cooler heads prevail, then the benefits of a cooperative future and greater regional integration will win out over a divisive re-playing of threats and counter-threats in the age-old struggle for power and control.

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Red Lines in the East China Sea

East China Sea[Short version on CNN GPS]

In many parts of the world the long curve of history continues dragging nations back to the brink of war. Take Northeast Asia where recent tensions between China and Japan risk erupting into conflict. The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, home to rocky outcroppings and resource rich waters nearby has become the latest potential flashpoint.

What started as a manageable confrontation in the East China Sea between Chinese fishing vessels and Japanese Coast Guard cutters has now escalated well beyond natural resources. Chinese fighter jets have shadowed Japanese planes in the skies above. Japan has threatened to fire warning shots. A hawkish Chinese general has warned that would be their only shot while Beijing announced plans to formally survey the islands. The U.S. has weighed in against any unilateral action that challenges Japan’s administration of the area.

If there’s a red line where rhetoric and posturing turns into open conflict (intended or otherwise) we’re close to crossing it.

Neither side shows any signs of compromise with Shinzo Abe back as Japan’s Prime Minister, and Xi Jinping inheriting an increasingly nationalistic country in transition. In a January International Crisis Group report  Stephanie Kleine-Albrandt notes that:

“While neither Beijing nor Tokyo desires a major conflict, their tacit agreement to set aside the dispute has been broken and there is deepening pessimism on both sides over the prospects of a peaceful settlement.”

As Bill Bishop points out in his daily Sinocism report, stepping back from the brink becomes increasingly difficult.

“China’s relentless media campaign since the summer, the anti-Japanese teachings so prevalent in the Chinese education system and the imperative of any new leadership to not look weak, especially toward the Japanese, could mean that if an accident did occur, especially one that resulted in the death of a Chinese citizen, Beijing might have so painted itself into a corner that it would have respond with force…”

The spiral of escalation, once started, can be difficult to unwind including any real shots fired by the increasing number of naval ships (both Chinese and Japanese) now plying the nearby waters or jets flying overhead. Similarly if either side attempts to land on the islands the other side will counter with a landing of their own. Calls for retaliation will be hard, if not impossible, to resist.

Complicating this current territorial flare-up is a centuries old rivalry. An economically emboldened China, with a military budget to match, has begun reasserting itself as a regional power. For centuries it was the trading hub of the region and an imperial power coercing its neighbors into paying annual tribute for peace and security. To be fair, the long arc of Chinese history also includes imperial dynasties that eschewed regional intervention – a fact currently lost on current policymakers.

Schools to this day continuing painting the country as a weak, aggrieved nation. The lesson: China must defend itself against a mythical recurrence of exploitation at the hands of foreign powers. These slights of history dating back to early 1900’s treaty ports (a time of unequal trading relations) are re-lived as if they were yesterday. Yet, the more recent reign of Mao Tse Tung driving the country into devastating famine, financial ruin and global isolation gains barely a footnote.

The cognitive dissonance between present day reality: China as the world’s second largest economy, with one of the world’s largest militaries and more than equal inclusion in the global trading system; and views of a distant, weakened past continue influencing China’s foreign policy. In Japan as well, historical revisionists continue celebrating war criminals at Yasakuni Shrine. The current administration has also contemplated changing its account of the use of sex slaves during World War II.

On a limited but positive note Japan sent, and China received an official delegation to discuss the territorial dispute. Former Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama visited China’s Nanjing Massacre memorial which marks Imperial Japan’s World War II atrocities. And U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell has been making the regional rounds calling for dialogue.

For now at least lines of communication remain open while both sides try to reign in their political extremes. Space for rational discussion, however continues shrinking under the pressure of nationalistic vitriol. If push comes to literal shove the damage to the region and international trade could be devastating.

Conflict has never been pre-ordained. It is the result of decisions, by people, to follow a course into crisis. New histories can and have been forged. Consider the U.S.-Vietnam relationship of today versus forty years ago. Trade has replaced hostilities and Americans travel to tourist destinations in straw hats rather than as soldiers in helmets. The past should not be forgotten, but neither should it be allowed to replay itself in an endless, self-destructive loop. Hopefully that’s not a lesson lost on Beijing and Tokyo in 2013.

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The Once and Future Beijing Blues

China_tmo_2012346

Remember the Beijing Olympics of 2008? A world-renowned stadium. An opening ceremony of unparalleled power and vibrancy. Beautiful blue skies. It was a picture-postcard moment.

At the time visiting reporters regaled the wonderfully clean air, some even claiming the government could make the skies rain on command to wash away the pollution. But to Beijing residents accustomed to temporary prevailing winds, and more importantly subjective policy enforcement, clear skies were a welcome illusion. No one really expected them to last after the games concluded.

And soon after brown became the new blue. Skies darkened. The sun faded behind a familiar beige-orange haze. Factories, forced to shut soon made up for lost time clogging the skies with pollution. The “fog” had returned, though in truth it was an unnatural cousin to moisture trapped by cold fronts against a ring of nearby mountains. (See this China Air Daily/Asia Society slider  of June 2009 bad air vs. blue sky days).

Over the last week or so Beijing has suffered under an extraordinarily bad pollution epidemic with air quality measurements soaring to over 800 according to a U.S. Embassy monitoring station (“safe” levels hover closer around 35-75 depending on U.S or Chinese standards respectively). Even using lower Chinese government readings the numbers were staggering (note: just before the Beijing Olympics official monitoring equipment was moved further outside the city center and to no surprise air quality numbers improved dramatically so doubts remain about “official” statistics.)

Since 2008 two significant changes have occurred. The Chinese government finally decided to report measurements at the far more dangerous PM 2.5 level where particulates small enough to invade lung tissue can cause respiratory disease. The media has also been given extraordinary leeway (at least for the moment) to report on the pollution problem.

What doesn’t seem to have changed is the enforcement of Chinese environmental laws passed years ago meant to protect the public against this very kind of devastating human-made air disaster. Are state-owned enterprises, some of the worst polluters with coal-fired power plants and cement factories, using the scrubbers they supposedly installed? Apparently not, or maybe only when inspectors come to visit.

Have state or national level environmental protection bureaus dramatically increased staffing, equipment and enforcement actions against polluters, despite the billions of dollars spent in pre-Olympic pollution control? Doesn’t seem like it.

Political will remains the major determinant of blue skies over Beijing and elsewhere. In today’s changing China where tens of thousands of people increasingly protest over polluted water and unsafe plant emissions the status quo can’t remain unchanged indefinitely. Absent the power of the vote, physical demonstrations are the only outlet for an increasingly victimized populace. Postcards of 2008 are fading fast. The only key decision left is whether to raise public health above breakneck growth and entrenched economic interests. Slightly less than phenomenal profits in the service of breathable air doesn’t seem like too great a compromise.

Image: NASA satellite imagery 12/11/12 (taken before the latest record pollution levels)

Down but Not Out – Japan’s Economy in Recession

Down but Not Out – Japan’s Economy in Recession

While Europe’s troubles continue making headlines Japan’s economy slipped back into recession in late 2012 with barely a mention. Why the difference? Perhaps the island economy shows no hope of recovery after twenty plus years of stagnation, its quiet fade into economic history a near certainty. That would be a decidedly misguided interpretation.

After the go-go years of the “Japan that could say no” (it never really did) and buying sprees in the U.S. including Rockefeller Center sold at a loss several years later, the land of the rising sun entered a period of relative economic darkness. That didn’t mean there wasn’t a ton of money circulating within and increasingly from Japan. Growth stalled but the country itself remained rich. Japan, still the world’s third largest economy  is expected to keep its strong position with a solid $6 trillion in estimated GDP according to the IMF.

Economic stagnation is hardly news for Japan, but coverage has steadily declined largely eclipsed by China’s seemingly unending rise. Add to that the Kabuki-esque political drama where Prime Ministers enter and exit the stage with alarming speed (roughly every 1-2 years) and government paralysis casts a long dark shadow over growth. The latest major economic debate centered on a consumption tax while government debt has risen to over 200% of GDP.

Demographics don’t help either. Alexandra Harney in the New York Times details Japan’s rapidly aging population and its effect on  future economic trajectory (spoiler alert – it doesn’t look good.) Unless there’s a baby boom, immigration increases dramatically to make up for the worker gap or productivity rises there will be a skills shortage.

An increasingly insular Japan also means robust debate has stagnated. In decades past the number of Japanese studying abroad rose considerably. These days it has been reduced to a trickle. Life, it turns out, isn’t so bad in declining Japan. Crime rates are low. The food is good, and public services abundant. A culture of perfectionism keeps the subways running on time and the streets clean. You’d be hard pressed to find more efficiently running cities anywhere else.

Japan’s middle class though has taken the slowdown exceptionally hard over the last several decades. Life-time employment, at one point an unbreakable social contract, has almost ceased to exist with replacement contract work yielding lower salaries and little to no benefits. Housing costs remain high and most singles, even well into their thirties, live at home with their parents to save on rent.

All this might change if a culture of entrepreneurship and an end to the slavish demands of late night corporate culture spreads.

A glimmer of sunlight  has emerged with Rakuten’s founder Mikitani Hiroshi’s creation of an alternate industry lobbying group made up entirely of new economy companies. The Japanese Association of New Economy (abbreviated in Japanese to Shinkeiren) aims to bring innovative policy solutions focusing on the needs of small fast-growing companies. This is a marked departure from the strategy of Japan’s biggest, and most powerful business lobbying group Keidanren representing the country’s conglomerates.

Time will tell if the new group gains any traction with national level policies. If past is prologue they’ll need deep pockets to influence Diet members mostly concerned about occupying seats rather than planning for a brighter future.

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Photo: Tokyo in spring time. BK.

In-Sourcing the U.S. Middle Class

In-Sourcing the U.S. Middle Class

Welcome back American manufacturing. U.S. in-sourcing (global companies bringing jobs back to the U.S. that were previously sent overseas) hit the mainstream news cycle again this month. An in-depth Atlantic article by Charles Fishman on GE’s plans to manufacture  high-end appliances has drawn exceptional attention. James Fallows, also in The Atlantic, provided the China context.

President Obama gave a January speech on bringing jobs back to the U.S. where he said:

 

“I don’t want the next generation of manufacturing jobs taking root in countries like China or Germany.  I want them taking root in places like Michigan and Ohio and Virginia and North Carolina.”

Among the notable companies announcing in-sourcing plans this past year Apple plans to spend $100 million on new domestic (U.S.) production capabilities and Starbucks’ $172 million investment in a Georgia plant (net 140 jobs, that’s some capital intensive, high-productivity work). White-collar workers appear to be gaining as well. General Motors plans to hire up to 10,000 U.S.-based IT workers, starting with 500 employees at an Austin, Texas innovation center.

The in-sourcing or reshoring “trend” isn’t exactly new. Otis Elevator announced plans to move jobs from Mexico to a new highly-efficient plant in South Carolina more than a year ago. Chesapeake Candle, one of the featured companies at the White House event actually opened its first U.S. factory back in July, 2011.

These jobs mostly aren’t the same ones that went overseas for lower-wage, low-skill workers overseas in the first place either. Garment manufacturing, for example, won’t be making a comeback.

What companies are finding, however is that the total cost for manufacturing abroad to sell back into the U.S. were never fully accounted for (shipping, training, quality control, etc.) When they are, it turns out, semi-skilled to high-skill work closest to where the products will be sold is more profitable than manufacturing overseas and sending them back.

Significant obstacle remain for these anecdotes to turn into a trend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First and foremost worker’s need re-training. Without significant investment in, dare I say it during these tough fiscal times, education, the skilled workforce won’t materialize to make these now isolated cases cascade into a wave of better jobs for America’s workforce.

Beyond education there remains a stultifying restriction on educated immigrants. Vivek Wahda in a July Foreign Policy piece makes the case for focusing on reform as many talented students leave the U.S. after finishing their studies because they can’t get green cards to stay. And if they could stay they’d likely either fill the numerous unfilled tech jobs still floating around in this glum economy, or start businesses of their own.

The Republican-led House passed legislation in November to give 55,000 science and tech grads per year an immediate path to permanent residence. That’s a start but not nearly comprehensive enough. Millions of illegal immigrants on which this country depends need to be turned into tax-paying members of the workforce. The legislation is unlikely to pass both the Senate and the President’s desk without major additions.

Without changes to education and immigration the U.S. risks a serious and long-lasting hollowing out of the middle class. That would prove disastrous for an economy that relies on consumption for 70% of its annual gross domestic product.

 

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons, depression-era soup line.

Mfg Data: http://unstats.un.org/unsd/snaama/dnllist.asp

North Korea Misfires (Again)

North Korea Misfires (Again)

Playing the same song (I was going to say record) over and over again gets old. And quoting oneself is lazy for a writer, but North Korea’s latest missile launch is so similar, in geopolitical terms, to its 2009 foray into the rocket business that I couldn’t help myself.

From a May 27, 2009 NYT op-ed “North Korea Misfires”:

 

Sooner or later the regional pendulum will shift and the Kim regime, or some variant of its successors, will feel confident again through this recent display of relative military might. They will inevitably realize that talks are the best alternative among a rapidly diminishing set of options to achieve the security and recognition they crave.

A wave of international condemnation and UN paper threats followed the missile test in 2009. Since then North Korea has installed a new leader despite projections of regime failure should Kim the father pass away without a well established heir (he did, the regime didn’t). Myanmar, one of it’s few allies has reformed bringing a wave of new investment into that country. Iran remains isolated. China has a new leader. Re-joining the Six Party Talks never materialized despite the perennial famine outside the capital and a wave of more intense international sanctions.

North Korea, in the greater constellation of world affairs remains as isolated as ever, but surviving like always.

Longer-range missile capabilities do little to change the military balance in the region. A war, any war, would be devastating to both North and South Korea (due to short-range missiles that can destroy either country’s capitals within in minutes.)

While China has not taken a hard enough line to influence Pyongyang towards talks rather than demonstrations of military prowess perhaps new leader Xi Jinping will realize that this problem country on his border needs to wake up to progress in the rest of the world. Hope springs eternal, but hope is not a policy (and neither is waiting out the regime hoping it will collapse).

The rest of the world has been unable to curb if not stop altogether North Korea’s ability to test missiles. Visitors to Pyongyang have commented on the seemingly better life, relatively speaking, in the capital. Trade with China continues. While a minor threat to the world-at-large this latest missile test helps the new Kim  demonstrate to his father’s generals that he too can defend the nation (even from fictitious enemies always on the ready to strike).

Perhaps he has finally earned his stripes and can now turn to more important matters like economic reform and opening.

If that were to happen the U.S. should be ready to talk starting with a simple gesture, say an invitation to the North Korean orchestra well after this latest missile test (renewed attention can’t be a reward). That closes the loop on the NY philharmonic visit to Pyongyang in 2008. Throw in a jazz concert at Lincoln Center for good measure.

North Korea returning to its de-nuclearization pledge as a precondition for any talks is a non-starter.  An all-or-nothing approach has failed to achieve results. Start small and move on to the more difficult talks later. But find a reason to talk.

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Photo: North Korean soldier on the NK side of the Yalu River.