Kim Jong Il Dares Obama

If the Kang Nam is indeed carrying illicit material and Kim Jong Il wants it delivered -- in other words, if he is not staging an incident to embarrass the Obama administration -- he has surely arranged for the ship to visit only friendly ports along the way. That means the United States, if it chooses to honor the restraints imposed by Resolution 1874, may be forced to watch the vessel unload a dangerous cargo at its intended destination. This possibility, of course, raises a critical issue: Should we be outsourcing our security to the UN?

We relied on the UN in the first part of this decade, and what happened? North Korea became a nuclear weapons state. China didn't enforce the 2006 Security Council resolution on inspecting North Korean cargoes, and the next year we learned that North Korea was proliferating nuclear technology to Syria.

"The United States will do what is necessary to do to defend U.S. national security and the national security of our allies," said Stephen Bosworth, Washington's part-time North Korean envoy.  Yet that is not entirely clear, as the record of the last few years indicates.  n December 2002, for example, we asked Spain to interdict an unflagged North Korean vessel carrying missiles to Yemen. After the Spanish boarded the ship -- risking their lives to do so -- we then told them to let the vessel proceed to its destination. What kind of policy was that? We gave Kim Jong Il, as well as everyone else, a big green light to continue proliferation.

There is no greater challenge for the United States than stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technologies. And now we are going to see if the new American president is more resolute than his predecessor and as determined as Bosworth wants us to believe. Chairman Kim has obviously gamed out the Kang Nam situation. Pyongyang has said the interdiction of one of its ships pursuant to the new Security Council resolution means war. He then sent out the vessel five days after the passage of the new UN measure.

Presumably, North Korea's leader does not want to start a full-scale conflict -- that would undoubtedly result in the end of his regime -- and he certainly does not want us to seize weapons being exported to customers. That means essentially one of two things: either the Kang Nam is carrying an innocent cargo and Kim is seeking to humiliate us or he thinks he can avoid inspections along the intended route.

In any case, the North Korean leader is stage managing an incident. So far, he and his destitute state have gotten the best of the strongest nation in history. This is, for us, a critical test of strategy and will.