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

At this moment, the Kang Nam, a tramp freighter, looks as if it is heading back to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It left the North Korean port of Nampo on June 17 and, after hugging the Chinese coast, made it as far south as the waters off Vietnam. At the end of last month, the rusting ship made a U-turn on the high seas and set a course for China. According to most reports, the North Korean freighter was on its way to Burma. This saga is not over, but it's clear the Kang Nam will not, at least on this voyage, be delivering its cargo.

And what would that cargo be?  Some speculate the rust bucket is carrying missiles like the seven Scuds Pyongyang tested on July 4.  Others believe the Kang Nam is transporting only automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Any shipment of weapons, even handguns, would be a violation of Security Council Resolution 1874, unanimously adopted on June 12.  The United States wants to make sure that any illicit material stays on board and has had destroyers, submarines, aircraft, and satellites keep watch on the rust bucket as it meandered in Asian waters.

Even by North Korean standards, the Kang Nam's voyage is strange. So what happened? David Ignatius reports he heard about the reversal of the vessel's course from a White House official, who called in the early hours of the morning while the Washington Post columnist was in Moscow. The official, whom Ignatius did not name, said Washington had conducted "a behind-the-scenes pressure campaign," convincing nations along the route to not allow the Kang Nam to dock.

And the American efforts were also directed at the Rangoon regime. "The Burmese said no, we don't want it," the official told Ignatius. And they said that on an open line to the North Koreans so that Washington would hear it. So the Obama administration is claiming credit for the ship's mid-course reversal. The White House official said the president had scored a "victory." As Ignatius's source noted, "Obama has an open hand, but a firm handshake."

And a cautious attitude. Despite concerns that the Kang Nam was carrying contraband, administration officials were worried the voyage was staged, that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was trying to create a confrontation over an ordinary cargo. To avoid a humiliating incident, the White House decided to avoid a search on the high seas. There is nothing inherently wrong about approaching the North Koreans warily -- they are especially cunning after all -- but not boarding the Kang Nam cannot be called a "victory."

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.