The North Koreans, unfortunately, have no fear of the United States. China has avoided criticizing the launch and can be counted on to block any American-backed resolution at the Security Council. Why? In part because the North Koreans have worked hard to get the Chinese on their side. There has, for instance, been a flurry of high-level diplomatic activity between Beijing and Pyongyang in past months. North Korean Premier Kim Yong Il conferred with both Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing last week. That series of talks followed a January visit to Pyongyang by a senior Chinese Communist Party official, who paid a well-publicized call on Chairman Kim, the North Korean’s first meeting with a foreign diplomat since his stroke in August.
The world does not really have a North Korean missile problem. Fundamentally, it has a China problem. Nations on some level recognize this: diplomats from the United States, South Korea, and Japan have been traveling to Beijing this month to ask the Chinese to use their influence with the North Koreans.
The Chinese, of course, say they have no control over their “stubborn” comrades across the border, even though they supply about 90 percent of the North’s oil, 80 percent of its consumer goods, and 45 percent of its food, much as aid or on concessionary terms. And as long as successive administrations in Washington buy Beijing’s patently false line, North Korea will continue to make nuclear weapons, test the ballistic missiles, and do its best to destabilize its region and the international system. Why should China stop fibbing while we continue to accept its nonsense?
Yet despite American fecklessness, sometimes the universe works as it should. It seems that, despite all their calculations, totalitarian leaders eventually overstep. In July 2006, Pyongyang’s failed launch — a long-range missile blew up about 40 seconds into its flight — allowed the world to forget about Kim’s ability to deliver payloads far from his shores. This time, if the missile works, the Obama administration will be forced to respond — and in ways more meaningful than Secretary Clinton has suggested so far.
Fortunately, North Korea at this moment is more vulnerable than it has been in a decade. Kim Jong Il is not in good health, succession to a new leader is by no means assured, and the economy, entering into the fourth year of a contraction, is smaller than it was two decades ago. In early February, Beijing announced even more aid for Pyongyang, and this added assistance appeared necessary due to the North’s prolonged downturn.
If the United States were to abandon the six-party process, it would presumably terminate the assistance it has been providing for denuclearization. The North Korean economy is tiny — its total output is somewhere around $20 billion — and so even little changes could have a disproportionate effect on the country.
So perhaps a successful missile test would finally galvanize the international community to do something effective about North Korea. Especially if Kim makes good on his threat and restarts his plutonium reactor.