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All eyes on North Korea, for good reason

Kim Jong-il's Taepodong-2 launch diverted world attention from Obama, NATO and the G20. But it carried a far greater payload.

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.