North Korea's Provocation

Thursday, July 6, 2006

NORTH KOREA's criminal dictatorship is nothing if not unsubtle. Its launching of at least seven missiles on the Fourth of July, including a long-range booster it had not tested since 1998, was baldly aimed at putting pressure on the Bush administration, which lately has been focused on making disarmament offers to Tehran rather than Pyongyang. Sure enough, within hours there were predictable calls in Washington for the administration to begin "bilateral talks" with the regime of Kim Jong Il, exactly as he must have hoped.

The good news is that most of the world appears outraged rather than impressed by the latest North Korean stunt. The U.N. Security Council met yesterday to consider a tough condemnatory resolution, including sanctions proposed by Japan, which has already announced its own punitive measures. Russia, South Korea and China, the other three participants in the stalled "six-party" talks on North Korea's nuclear program, all reacted critically. The long-range missile itself appeared to be a dud, which may ease concerns that Mr. Kim is close to acquiring the capacity to target the United States.

In fact, the missile firings offer the Bush administration an opportunity: not to bargain with Mr. Kim but to insist that China and South Korea stop tolerating his refusal to begin the disarmament he promised last year. Proponents of U.S.-North Korean negotiations overlook the reality that direct contacts between the Bush administration and Pyongyang began a year ago and led last September to a nominally far-reaching deal. North Korea promised to give up its nuclear arms and rejoin the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while the United States, China, South Korea, Russia and Japan promised aid, normalization of relations and support for a nuclear plant to generate electricity.

At the time we suggested that the North was not serious about its commitments but that it mainly hoped to placate China and South Korea so that it could continue to receive massive subsidies and industrial investments that are sustaining an otherwise unviable despotism. Sure enough, Mr. Kim's regime retreated from its commitments almost immediately and refused to show up for follow-up talks on implementation. As an excuse, it has cited an admirably effective crackdown by the U.S. Treasury on North Korea's counterfeiting of dollars and other criminal enterprises. (This, by the way, is why the North is calling for new negotiations with Washington: It wants not the talks but the lifting of the financial sanctions that it says must precede them.)

Until now China and South Korea have refused to pressure Mr. Kim. That cynical policy serves South Korean and Chinese economic interests as well as the two governments' desire for "stability" in the North -- even if stability means propping up one of the most murderous and amoral regimes in modern history. Now that that regime has ignored their appeals and tested a missile with the potential to strike every capital in East Asia, it ought to be harder for the neighbors to argue that their bounteous subsidies to Pyongyang should continue while North Korea refuses to return to the six-party talks.

If China and South Korea are serious about stopping North Korea's development of weapons of mass destruction, now is the time to demonstrate it. If they are unwilling to act, the Bush administration should consider other means of preventing further North Korean missile launches. A proposal by former defense secretary William J. Perry and former assistant defense secretary Ashton B. Carter that the U.S. military destroy the long-range missile before it was launched, published on the opposite page last month, struck us as premature. But if diplomacy continues to fail, it must be an option for the future.

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