The defining characteristic of U.S. policy toward North Korea — incoherence — doesn't seem to have changed much as the Bush administration has given way to that of Barack Obama. On Sunday, Obama treated North Korea's launch of an intercontinental missile like an emergency: Woken in Prague at 4:30 a.m. by his aides, he sternly declared that "rules must be binding" and "violations must be punished," and dispatched his U.N. ambassador to seek an immediate resolution from the Security Council.
The council, however, quickly balked at sanctioning the regime of Kim Jong Il — and understandably so. Just two days before the much-expected missile test, Obama's special envoy for North Korea, Stephen W. Bosworth, had publicly declared that "pressure is not the most productive line of approach" in dealing with the North. "After the dust of the missile settles a bit," he said, the administration's priority would be persuading Pyongyang to return to negotiations regarding its nuclear program …
Obama seems to believe that he can increase the pressure on Pyongyang through the reinvigorated global nonproliferation policy he announced in Prague. The measures he proposed are worthy and needed — such as a new effort to control loose nuclear materials, a ban on the creation of new fissile material for weapons and the creation of an international fuel bank to supply nuclear reactors.
Still, it doesn't seem likely that either the North Korean or Iranian regimes will be swayed by these policies. Such concessions as have been extracted from Kim in the past have followed tough steps by the United States and China, above all the squeezing of the regime's foreign bank accounts. It's hard to believe that the Obama administration will make more progress than its predecessors without more consistency in administering that kind of medicine.
Regardless of how the missile technology performed, or did not, North Korea's long-range test launch failed to ignite the international crisis that Pyongyang apparently sought.
World leaders expressed concern, but did not overreact.
North Korea is desperate to be taken seriously. Close observers of the totalitarian regime see a replay of a well-used, well-practiced strategy to draw attention and, perhaps, provoke regional powers to craft a hasty political settlement.
President Barack Obama was among those who chose his words carefully. "North Korea has ignored its obligations, rejected calls for restraint and further isolated itself," the president said. Those last words would sting Kim Jong Il the most …
North Korea cannot be ignored, but it can be dealt with in a purposeful fashion. Pyongyang went for high-velocity provocation and fired a blank.
Hours after North Korea dared to launch a long-range rocket in defiance of world pressure, President Barack Obama issued a warning. "Rules must be binding," he said, a reference to the North's violation of a 2006 U.N. resolution that imposed sanctions on Pyongyang. "Violations must be punished. Words must mean something."
U.S. diplomats sailed into the United Nations on Sunday in high diplomatic dudgeon. They and allies demanded a strong Security Council resolution condemning North Korea and spiky new sanctions to punish Pyongyang.
They got zilch. So far, not even a toothless "president's statement" from the council expressing its opinion on the launch. The Chinese and Russians say they aren't sure North Korea broke any rules.
Welcome to the United Nations, Mr. President …
So we'll learn something quickly about the Obama administration. Can it make the president's words count? Can it persuade reluctant giants like the Chinese to cooperate on North Korea? Can it work the foot-dragging United Nations into doing anything meaningful in response to this rocket launch?
The rocket launched over the weekend flew for about 13 minutes and fell into the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles east of Japan. The third stage apparently failed.
This was more than a test of North Korea's ballistic missile capability, though. This was a test of the mettle of a new president.