North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is a
punchline — until he isn’t. And sadly, the launch yesterday 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 U.S. West Coast.

That said, there’s not much the U.S. 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 (following those in 2006 and 2009).

North Korea’s neighbors were unanimous in warning against
the launch, and with varying degrees of intensity, they have
condemned it. The launch also came right before elections in
South Korea and Japan, where it will feed popular fears but
won’t likely produce any workable consensus for getting tough on
North Korea.

In South Korea, both presidential candidates have signaled
during the campaign that 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 that
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.

There is little chance of coercing a tentative South Korea,
a belligerent Japan and a reluctant China into a serious
punitive campaign against North Korea. Any effort to impose new
penalties at the UN is likely to be watered down to
insignificance or fail; it would also probably trigger a North
Korean backlash that, if history is any guide, could include
another nuclear test.

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 UN 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.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board:
view@bloomberg.net.

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