On North Korea, Washington Should Listen to South

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak -- also known as "The Bulldozer" -- rolls into Washington this week for his first summit with President Obama. He could not be arriving at a more crucial time.

According to U.S. sources, North Korea is preparing to detonate yet another nuclear device. Its first test was in October 2006, and its second occurred last month. A third detonation, if it takes place soon, would indicate an acceleration in Pyongyang's race to perfect a warhead.

At this moment, reconnaissance satellites are watching North Korea prepare for its fourth long-range missile test. Its third took place in the beginning of April. Its first two occurred in 1998 and 2006. The upcoming launch will, therefore, constitute evidence of an expedited missile program.

Since the missile shot on April 5 and the nuclear detonation on May 25, North Korea has repudiated the armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War and sentenced two American reporters to 12 years of hard labor. This month, a North Korean patrol boat intruded into South Korean waters. The North has also issued threats to start a nuclear war.

In the past, Pyongyang's provocative acts came one at a time. Now, one closely follows another.

Why is North Korea acting up now?

Of course, there are many factors. There is an internal political struggle over succession. North Korea's generals need to advertise their weapons work for their Iranian and Syrian customers. Hardline military elements are gaining strength inside the regime as Kim Jong Il's health fades. The North, in the fourth year of a downturn, needs additional assistance from the international community. And Kim apparently wants to show his displeasure over the tougher -- and more sensible -- policies of South Korea's Lee.

But one other factor may best explain the timing of North Korea's provocations: Washington's extraordinarily weak response to the early-April missile launch.

Just a day before the test, Stephen Bosworth -- President Obama's part-time envoy for North Korea -- warned Pyongyang in stern words not to launch. So what did the American diplomat say after the test? "I think everyone is feeling relatively relaxed about where we are at this point in the process," Bosworth noted while in Japan in May. "There is not a sense of crisis." At the same time, the envoy said this: "It is clearly understood that the possibility of direct dialogue between the U.S. and the DPRK is very much with us."