A Missile for Mr. Obama

Monday, February 9, 2009

IT HASN'T been easy for foreign governments to command the attention of the Obama administration in its opening days, but North Korea is doing its best. Last week, the secretive Stalinist regime was spotted transporting what looked like a Taepodong-2 missile toward a launch site. In theory, the rocket has a range of more than 4,000 miles, which would allow it to reach Alaska. In trotting it out, Pyongyang is transparently threatening to violate U.N. resolutions by conducting its first flight test since 2006. This follows a steadily escalating series of provocations by the North toward South Korea, including the repudiation of past non-aggression agreements and a threat of "all-out confrontation."

The attention-getting behavior may look infantile, but from the North's point of view it is quite logical. Time and again in the past decade, dictator Kim Jong Il has manufactured a crisis by testing missiles or a nuclear weapon, taking steps to produce bomb-grade plutonium, or expelling international inspectors. In most instances he has been rewarded with diplomatic attention and bribes of food and energy from South Korea, the United States, China and other nations, in exchange for reversing or freezing the actions. The Bush administration took office eight years ago declaring it would not condone such payoffs. It meekly ended, in October, by bribing Mr. Kim to reverse steps toward resuming plutonium reprocessing.

The mess inherited by the Obama administration is considerably worse than that encountered by President Bush. North Korea recently declared that it has weaponized its entire declared stock of plutonium, which if true means it has five or six nuclear weapons. In theory, the Bush administration won Mr. Kim's commitment to give up this stockpile in a step-by-step process in exchange for economic and diplomatic favors. In practice, Pyongyang's behavior never changed: While reneging or cheating on its own commitments, it used brinkmanship to extract concession after concession from Washington.

The Obama administration now will have to determine whether and how it can revive the broken disarmament process. (Curiously, it has reportedly decided to appoint the architect of that failure, Christopher R. Hill, as ambassador to Iraq, though he lacks Middle East experience and doesn't speak Arabic.) But first it will have to answer a more fundamental question: Will it, too, respond to North Korean missile tests and war threats with attention and bribes? The State Department took a step in the right direction on Thursday by announcing a trip by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to South Korea, Japan, China and Indonesia this month -- while omitting North Korea from the list of issues she would focus on. If there's one lesson to be learned from the past decade, it's that rewarding the North's provocations will only ensure more of them -- and that while that strategy works, the regime will not take genuine steps toward disarmament.

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