Did Obama Score a Victory at Sea vs. North Korea?

Victory in this context means preventing the weapons on board -- the U-turn is a sure sign the vessel was carrying contraband -- from reaching their ultimate destination. Pyongyang can put the cargo on another ship when the United States is not paying attention or, more probably, send it by truck or plane across China. If Burma, another Chinese client state, was the ultimate destination, Beijing will be sure to help the North Koreans deliver the weapons.

So the Obama administration has not won a victory by forcing the Kang Nam to head back to North Korea. It has merely come out on top in the first episode of a multi-round game. And Obama's Washington is perfectly capable of turning what should be a triumph into an unsatisfactory result or even a defeat.

How could it do that? The rationale behind the administration's reluctance to stop the Kang Nam is that Resolution 1874 prohibits forced boardings on the high seas, and Washington had promised China that we would adhere to its restrictive procedures. The grand plan, according to the New York Times, is that our measured response this time will encourage the Chinese and Russians to back "gradually escalating sanctions" in the future.

So far, Obama's approach, which is essentially a continuation of George W. Bush's, has worked. Resolution 1874, for instance, is stiffer than Resolution 1718, adopted in October 2006.

Yet there is a flaw in this reasonably sounding plan. The resolutions have been tougher, but the Chinese have not been enforcing them. It is true that China voted in favor of Resolution 1718, which calls on nations to inspect North Korean goods. Immediately after the vote, Wang Guangya, Beijing's U.N. ambassador, declared that the inspection provision was unacceptable to China.  Then, days later, he said China would inspect North Korean cargoes after all but would not intercept or interdict them. Since then, Beijing has ignored its inspection obligations while the Bush administration turned its attention elsewhere.

While China has refused to stop Pyongyang's proliferation, the North Koreans have continued selling nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology, as they have been doing for more than a decade. So they have a big head start on us, and, given the advanced nature of the atomic bomb and ballistic missile programs they support, we have to catch virtually every shipment from here on out.

We have this decade outsourced the security of the United States and our allies to the Security Council, which means to China and Russia. As we have done so, we have allowed potential adversaries to give the North Koreans time to develop and test nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. It's a great idea to develop friendly relations with other great powers, but it's more important to stop Kim Jong Il.

We did not stop Kim last week. We are, on the contrary, allowing the Kang Nam to find a safe port, and that means we are merely delaying a final resolution of a matter critical to the security of the entire international community.