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.
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.