December 12, 2012

MOST NORTH Korea watchers believe that Wednesday’s missile launch by the insular dictatorship was prompted by domestic imperatives. The latest Stalinist ruler, 29-year-old Kim Jong Eun, is reportedly struggling to consolidate power; the anniversary of his father’s death is coming up; and something had to be done to deliver on the regime’s promise that 2012 would be a year of “strength and prosperity.”

It’s likely, though, that the new leader is hoping to repeat the trick of his father and grandfather before him: luring the United States and South Korea into trying to stop his misbehavior with “engagement,” complete with bribes of cash and food. Pyongyang has a long record of promising to stop its missile tests or to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for such aid. It then pockets the reward and reneges. The latest instance came in April, when the North staged a missile test just weeks after agreeing with the Obama administration on a freeze of its programs in exchange for 240,000 tons of food (which were never delivered) and de facto U.S. recognition of the new ruler.

Unlike the April launch, this one appeared to have successfully placed a satellite in orbit. It drew predictable denunciations from Washington, Seoul and Tokyo — and an equally predictable statement by China opposing any meaningful action by the U.N. Security Council. The bottom line of all the rhetoric is that the North probably will not suffer any tangible consequences for its clear breach of binding U.N. resolutions.

On the contrary, Mr. Kim will likely get the attention he seeks soon after South Korea’s upcoming presidential election, in which both leading candidates have promised to soften the tough policy of the present government. In particular, a victory by leftist Moon Jae-in would probably lead to a return to the failed “sunshine policy” of the 2000s, which saw the South heap aid, investment and political favors on the North without bringing about any change in a regime that keeps an estimated 150,000 of its people enslaved in prison camps and starves most of the rest.

Regardless of South Korea’s choice, the Obama administration should avoid repeating its mistakes. For three years before striking its foolish deal with the regime, the administration stuck to the position that it would not “buy the same horse” from Pyongyang. Instead it sought to tighten sanctions and to bring pressure to bear on China, which is the only country with real leverage over North Korea.

That would be the appropriate response to the latest incident. In the meantime, the administration should continue to fund further development of the rudimentary missile defenses developed by the Clinton and Bush administrations in anticipation of the North Korean threat. A missile that can place a satellite in orbit could, with further development, someday be equipped with a nuclear payload capable of reaching the United States.