North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is a punchline — until he isn’t. And sadly, the launch Wednesday of a multi-stage rocket is no laughing matter. It violates two United Nations resolutions, roils northeast Asia and brings North Korea closer to developing a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the West Coast.
There’s not much the United States and its allies could or should do to punish North Korea. China is the only country with any real leverage, and is unwilling to use it.
The only surprise about the launch was its timing: It occurred shortly after North Korea had said that there might be a delay for technical reasons. North Korean media portrayed the effort to send up a satellite as a fulfillment of the wishes of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, whose one-year death anniversary will be Dec. 17. An earlier effort this April ended ignominiously minutes after liftoff — a failure that, in a remarkable departure from past practice, the regime publicly acknowledged. Adding more pressure to a successful redo before the end of the year was the symbolic importance of 2012 as the centenary of the birth of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung — which Kim Jong Un has said would usher in an era of “prosperity and power.”
The U.S. made clear that any launch would be a “provocation,” but U.S. diplomacy with North Korea was already at a standstill. One casualty of last spring’s abortive trip to the launch pad was the so-called Feb. 29 agreement, under which the U.S. had agreed to provide North Korea with humanitarian food aid and North Korea had said that it would forgo further missile or nuclear tests and allow access to its nuclear facilities.
North Korea has resisted entreaties by China and other countries to return to the six-party talks aimed at achieving a lasting peace on the Korean peninsula. It is moving ahead with construction of a light-water nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Not only has it said that it has the right to launch more rockets into space, but preparations have been made for another nuclear test.
North Korea’s neighbors were unanimous in warning against the launch, and with varying degrees of intensity, they have condemned it.
In South Korea, both presidential candidates have signaled during the campaign they will seek to move away from President Lee Myung-bak’s confrontational approach. The Liberal Democratic Party’s hawkish Shinzo Abe is expected to triumph in Japan’s Dec. 19 polls, but that nation is more concerned with South Korea — spats over territory and other issues helped sabotage a planned agreement to cooperate on intelligence matters earlier this year.
China, for its part, has stepped up its economic relations with North Korea, and one high-ranking official announced the Beijing government was ready “to deepen cooperation in all areas.” It has an interest in Kim Jong Un following the path of economic reform.
Kim has generally proved to be a truculent pupil, however. His decision to go ahead with this latest provocation both stole headlines from the coming-out tour of the new Communist Party head Xi Jinping and demonstrably reinforces the rationale for the U.S. security pivot to Asia, which unsettles the Chinese leadership.
China’s leverage with North Korea is blunt: behave, or we’ll let you collapse and thus precipitate the one outcome that we want to avoid — a large-scale refugee crisis on the border and the prospect of a unified Korea not under Chinese sway. For now, the benefits of protecting even an obstreperous North Korea still outweigh the costs.
Instead of pushing for tough new penalties, the U.S. would be better off using this crisis to forge a unified front to deal with the inevitable next crisis. The disparate national agendas involved will require President Barack Obama to lead from the front, not behind. His election victory gives him the political space to pursue, as some former negotiators have suggested, broad-based peace talks instead of the bad-dog, denuclearization approach that North Korea has routinely rejected.
A U.N. report this summer offered several suggestions for improving enforcement of existing sanctions, after it found that that fewer than half of member states had reported to the Security Council on their implementation efforts. And the U.S. and its allies can also increase support for independent news media efforts to get more information into — and out of — North Korea.
North Korea plays the long game. It treats its negotiations with the U.S. as existential, not as an on-again, off-again sideshow. If the U.S. wants to engineer a good result, it will have to match that intensity of focus, ingenuity and effort.