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Opinion: Will Obama stand up to North Korea?

As the Kang Nam I chugs toward Myanmar, the new US president has a decision to make.

A view of the Kang Nam I, a North Korean general cargo ship, near Lantau Island in Hong Kong Oct. 24, 2006. (Paul Yeung/Reuters)

NEW YORK — Why is a pair of American warships shadowing a North Korean rust-bucket called the Kang Nam I as it makes its way from the Sea of Japan toward Southeast Asia? 

American intelligence officials believe the ship carries illicit arms meant for the military dictatorship in Myanmar. Or, hint anonymous “intelligence sources,” perhaps impoverished, pariah state Myanmar is just a way station for a more nefarious technology transfer.

Sadly, the world probably will never know which is the case.

New United Nations Security Council sanctions passed after North Korea tested its latest nuclear warhead authorized the world’s navies to monitor such traffic. China, which has traditionally protected Pyongyang from the harshest Security Council rebukes, even voted for the sanctions this time, a significant symbolic shift and a victory for U.S. diplomacy.

But Beijing still blocked efforts to authorize boarding parties to inspect suspect North Korean vessels. For that to happen, North Korea would have to give its permission, which is about as likely as Kim Jong Il turning up at the next board meeting of Human Rights Watch.

Such is the infuriating status quo at the U.N. Even a nuclear explosion by a nation that sells its nuclear knowledge to the highest bidder, shoots poorly engineered missiles over their neighbors’ heads and treats its own population like prison inmates could not bring coherent action from the Security Council.

And so Barack Obama finds himself in a familiar position for an American president. Having seen a diplomatic initiative spurned with a nuclear test, he talked tough and did due diligence by working through the existing U.N. channels. And for his pains, he finds himself with less leeway to deal with a ship that might (though it is unlikely) be carrying a nuclear weapon than he had with a bunch of teenaged Somali pirates.

It did not take long for Obama’s domestic enemies to gloat. Smarting from the years in which their own approaches (including diplomatic quarantine, covert action, and preemptive warfare) failed, they were loath to see Obama’s squishy diplomatic initiatives bear fruit. How happy they must now be.

Still, with the exception of the one-third of Americans who constitute the permanently embittered minority, reasonable people should have some pity for Obama at this stage.