All eyes on North Korea, for good reason

WASHINGTON — By interrupting the meticulous choreography of U.S. President Barack Obama’s overseas trip with the launch of a long-range rocket, North Korea offered the young president a lesson on how rudely ungovernable, and dangerous, the world can be.

With the rest of the planet focused on the global economic crisis, Afghanistan and Michelle Obama’s wardrobe, the North Korean launch put the armed forces of five major powers — the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia and China — on alert, and wrestled the spotlight to northeast Asia.

“The North Koreans don’t abide neglect,” said Scott Snyder, an analyst at the Asia Foundation. “They will find a way to draw the attention of the international community.”

Though it’s said to have failed at its immediate purpose — taking a payload into space — the firing of the Taepodong-2 rocket was a step forward in North Korea’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The three-stage rocket traveled considerably further than previous prototypes.

It was a reminder to Obama of the threat posed by the secretive, nuclear-armed regime, seemingly immune to conventional diplomatic pressures, intent on selling killer technologies to other rogue states and teetering on the brink of what could be a chaotic change in leadership.

The traveling White House press corps peppered Obama’s aides with an obvious question last weekend: Was North Korea bringing on a crisis to test the mettle of a young new president?

The answer is yes, and — more chillingly — no. 

Provoking an observable U.S. response was surely an ancillary goal for North Korea, Snyder said. The regime has a history of taking provocative actions at the beginning of American presidencies.

But the launch had plenty of other benefits for North Korea. It helped Pyongyang to maintain its leverage with its patron, China, and to intimidate neighboring South Korea and Japan.

It succeeded, at least for a moment, in dividing Russia and China from the Americans, Japanese and South Koreans, thus revealing the weakness of the five-nation coalition that hopes to contain it.

And North Korea could cause further fissures among the major powers if it tugs the U.S. into one-on-one negotiations, outside the current, stalled six-party talks, which China and the others prefer.

Since the days of the Cold War, North Korea has learned that “calculated adventurism” brings not retaliation, but offers of negotiation from the United States, said James Person, an expert on North Korea at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.

The launch was no doubt designed, as well, to help North Korean leader Kim Jong-il — aged and reportedly battling a series of illnesses — assert strength and control on the eve of an important political conference there.

But maybe the most worrisome thing about the North Korean rocket launch was how relentlessly predictable it was, said Bruce Bechtol, an analyst at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College.

“You can take this to the bank,” he said. The world “will see another ballistic missile launch in the next few months” by North Korea. “They have advanced their missile capabilities.”

No matter who occupied the Oval Office for the last 20 years, North Korea has not altered its basic objectives, said Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

North Korea maintains its security as a totalitarian state by advancing as a nuclear power, and by filling its treasury with the aid it can extort from worried nations like China, South Korea and the U.S., and with the cash it gets selling warhead and missile technology to other countries, like Iran.

“Selling this missile to Iran means revenues in the hundreds of millions,” Bechtol said. North Korea “has proliferated almost every kind of ballistic missile in its arsenal to Iran.”

When Syria ran a clandestine nuclear power program in recent years (the one that was destroyed by an Israeli air strike) “the critical factor” in its development “seems to have been North Korean assistance,” said Leonard Spector, an analyst with the Monterey Institute and proliferation expert.

Knowing the formidable nuclear and conventional military force that North Korea could direct against South Korea if provoked, the Obama administration’s own military options are limited; none of the U.S. allies in the region, at this point, want to risk war. The U.S. could have destroyed the Taepodong rocket before it was launched — it sat at the launch site for days — but then would have lost the valuable information the Pentagon gained on North Korean capabilities when tracking its flight.

The launch came when the administration is still reviewing its strategy for Korea, and has several key jobs to fill, concerning northeast Asia, at the Pentagon and State Department.

The immediate American response to the launch, on Capitol Hill and among some in the administration, was disappointment with China, which has subsidized the North Korean economy in recent years and has a history as an ally going back to the days of the Korean War.

“There is growing frustration in Washington with China,” Person said. But, he said that while China has “more leverage … than any other nation, its leverage over North Korea is still quite limited.”

The Chinese leadership has its hands full with the transformation of its economy and the global recession. Sharing a long border with North Korea, it values stability above other goals. An outbreak of war or famine or civil chaos on the Korean peninsula could send thousands of refugees fleeing across the border and disrupt China’s development.

The North Koreans know all this. “China’s leverage is not as strong as those in Washington like to think,” Person said.

But while “China is increasingly … stretched very thin,” it still may have the best chance at governing North Korean behavior, said John Park, a scholar at the United States Institute for Peace. Punishing China for North Korean sins could be counterproductive. “If there is a view that North Korea got away with this because China coddled them it’s going to complicate things.”

Indeed, driving a wedge between the U.S. and China — “playing off Washington against Beijing” — could be one of North Korea’s primary goals, said Columbia University’s Joel Wit.

Because of North Korea’s troublesome role spreading nuclear and missile technology, and the advances it is making, the major powers need to act now, in concert and aggressively, as if they were “fighting a malignant tumor,” Wit said.

“Taking diplomatic aspirin is really not going to solve this problem,” he said. 

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