According to South Korean sources, a U.S. satellite on Tuesday spotted a three-stage missile on its pad at the Musudan-ri facility in northeastern North Korea. The earliest launch time is this weekend, although Pyongyang will probably wait until at least next week. Kim Jong Il’s officials have notified international organizations they will launch a rocket carrying a communications satellite sometime from April 4 to 8. The rocket, according to North Korea’s notification, will head east and splash down somewhere halfway between Japan and Hawaii. Almost every analyst thinks the North has no intention of putting a satellite in orbit and will in fact test a ballistic missile.
Xinhua, Beijing’s official news agency, noted on Wednesday that the Obama administration “has become less tough on the launch,” and that appears to be a fair assessment. There have been, in recent days, meaningless statements from Washington, especially those made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “We intend to raise this violation of the Security Council resolution, if it goes forward, in the U.N.,” she said on Wednesday, referring to the expected missile launch. “This provocative action in violation of the U.N. mandate will not go unnoticed, and there will be consequences.”
There will? And what would those be, Madame Secretary? Mrs. Clinton specifically mentioned “consequences to the six-party talks, which we would like to see revived.” In Pyongyang, Mr. Kim must be scratching his head over that one. If she wants to resuscitate negotiations, how is she punishing him by threatening to end the talks?
It looks as if Clinton needs lessons in how to threaten, and there is no better teacher than Chairman Kim himself. This week, the North Korean Foreign Ministry said that, if the Security Council adopted steps to punish Pyongyang for the missile launch, the country will restart its plutonium reactor in Yongbyon and “necessary strong measures will be taken.” This warning closely followed one to kill the disarmament talks.
President Obama surely does not want to see Yongbyon turning out more fissile material for bombs. Moreover, for an administration intent on solving problems through dialogue, even Pyongyang’s threat to walk away from the bargaining table carries weight. Yet despite what the president thinks, the end of an essentially unproductive process — the six-party talks have been grinding on since 2003 — would force Washington to come up with more effective tactics to disarm North Korea.