Here we go again. In violation of a stack of United Nations sanctions resolutions, North Korea has just launched a rocket into space. Pyongyang is describing this latest blast-off as a satellite launch. But the requisite technology is also useful for developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, which is almost certainly what’s really going on. This launch comes just a month after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, which Pyongyang advertised as a hydrogen bomb — meaning a weapon of even greater destructive power than the atomic bombs North Korea has been testing since 2006.
In plain English, what does this portend? North Korea is working on long-range missiles that could deliver a nuclear strike on the United States. At the very least, such weapons could greatly enhance North Korea’s leverage in its longtime racket of nuclear extortion. There is also the deeply unpleasant possibility that at some point North Korea might use such weapons. There is also the growing danger that other countries (Iran comes to mind), observing the relative impunity with which North Korea has been pursuing its missile and bomb projects, will be quite rationally inclined to follow suit — or perhaps purchase Pyongyang’s presumably advancing nuclear missile technology and wares.
What are President Obama and his team doing about this? Secretary of State John Kerry has denounced this weekend’s test launch as — you guessed it — “unacceptable,” calling it “a major provocation.”
What, exactly, has it provoked? Well, along with provoking Kerry to to call it a provocation, the launch also provoked National Security Adviser Susan Rice to call it “a flagrant violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, not to be outdone, called it “deeply deplorable.” On Sunday the UN Security Council itself will hold an emergency meeting to discuss this latest violation. More words!
So, is North Korea’s regime now quaking in its jackboots?
Nope. There is by now a ritual to these things. It goes like this:
North Korea makes visible preparations to test a bomb or a long-range missile. The U.S. and its allies watch, and maybe warn that the test must not take place. North Korea conducts the test, and publicly congratulates itself. The Obama administration and affiliates denounce the test as unacceptable, or even deeply deplorable. The UN Security Council meets, talks, and in response to especially memorable occasions, such as a nuclear test, produces a sanctions resolution. North Korea, undeterred, carries on preparing for the next test.
That’s pretty much how Obama has dealt — or not dealt — with North Korea since the early months of his presidency (though a month after North Korea’s most recent nuclear test, Obama has not yet managed to wring a corresponding resolution out of the UN Security Council).
In April, 2009, North Korea carried out a long-range missile test, calling it a satellite launch. Obama denounced it as a “provocation,” and — calling as usual for the world to stand shoulder-to-shoulder — he elaborated: “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.”
Whatever Obama’s words meant (or whatever he meant them to mean), apparently they did not mean much to North Korea. Just a few weeks later, in May, 2009, North Korea carried out a nuclear test — its second since 2006, and its first on Obama’s watch. Obama denounced the test, and the UN passed a sanctions resolution.
By now, on Obama’s watch, North Korea has carried out three nuclear tests — in 2009, 2013, and just last month — as well as umpteen ballistic missiles tests, a number of them space launches that were effectively tests of ICBMs. A number of senior U.S. defense officials warned last year that North Korea is now capable of mounting a miniaturized nuclear warhead on a missile, and launching it at the United States.
Obama’s White House has dubbed this approach a policy of “strategic patience.” For North Korea, it has translated into a green light to carry on developing nuclear missiles.
Nuclear talks won’t solve this. It is devoutly to be hoped that Obama does not try to round out his Iran nuclear deal and embrace of Cuba’s Castro regime by kow-towing to Pyongyang. North Korea has made a mockery of every U.S. negotiation and deal, stretching back to the early 1990s under President Clinton, and including the sham of a short-lived missile-freeze agreement in Feb. 2012, under Obama (the so-called Leap Day Deal, which North Korea scrapped by way of almost immediately testing a long-range missile).
What should Obama do? North Korea is a tough problem. A policy of waiting has not improved things. On the contrary, while Obama has been practicing his alarmingly non-strategic “patience,” North Korea has become dramatically more dangerous. Yes, Pyongyang’s behavior is unacceptable. What’s also unacceptable by now is an American foreign policy that settles for slapping the label “unacceptable” on North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, while doing nothing that might actually stop the next one.