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Just Words

The UN Security Council's latest failure to check the North Korean threat.

12:00 AM, Apr 14, 2009 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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During the 2008 presidential campaign, vice presidential candidate Joseph Biden cryptically warned voters that Barack Obama "will be tested" in the early days of his administration. The latest test arrived barely 10 days ago when, in defiance of the United Nations Security Council, North Korea launched a rocket widely believed to be a prelude to its development of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. The missile launch, over Japan's airspace, occurred just as President Obama was preparing to deliver a major address on nuclear non-proliferation.

"Violations must be punished," Obama said in his Prague speech. "Words must mean something." Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, likewise promised to send a "clear message" to North Korea in the U.N. Security Council. Yet the clearest message to emerge over the past week of U.S. diplomacy is that violations of international security--even those as brazen and de-stabilizing as North Korea's missile launch--will go unchallenged. After a week of inaction, the Security Council yesterday rejected a resolution censuring North Korea and threatening further sanctions, settling instead for a non-binding "presidential statement" condemning the launch. Despite team Obama's dreamy gloss on its negotiating savvy, it has legitimized a diplomatic debacle that promises to embolden the regime of Kim Jong Il.

"If we don't do something, the existence of the Security Council as well as the meaning of its resolutions become doubtful." Those words, uttered last week by Shintaro Ito, Japan's state secretary for foreign affairs, were drowned out by calls for a "unified message" from Security Council members. President Obama was quick to criticize the launch as a breach of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, which prohibits North Korea from conducting ballistic missile-related activities of any kind. But the seriousness of the violation was undercut by Rice and State Department officials, who have led the charge for political ecumenism. It was Japan, not the United States, that called for an emergency session of the Security Council and demanded a tough resolution against Pyongyang. Once the United States suggested it would accept a weaker U.N. statement, however, Japan backed down. That made it inevitable that China, North Korea's principal benefactor and a permanent member of the 15-member Security Council, would have its way.

The Council's collective failure of nerve assures Pyongyang that there will be no meaningful consequences for defying its resolutions against developing long-range missiles. No one--probably not even Kim Jong Il's mother--believes the government's claim to be researching satellite technology. If used as a ballistic missile, North Korea's rocket could throw a warhead of 2,200 pounds roughly 3,700 miles--far enough to hit Alaska. The Council's latest statement suggests that sanctions against North Korea could be expanded, but Russia and China are expected to thwart any effective action. Susan Rice insists that the U.N. statement is binding, though other Security Council members disagree, guaranteeing political paralysis.

Despite all of this, the Obama administration is claiming a diplomatic victory. It comes as no surprise. At a combative press briefing the day after the missile launch, State Department spokesman Robert Wood was pressed to explain why the Security Council had failed to act immediately, given the fact that North Korea's launch plans were known months in advance. Wood's response--"it's a complicated issue for a number of reasons that I don't want to get into"--didn't satisfy some in the press corps. "I'm curious to know what makes this such a complicated issue," one reporter said, "because you have, for all to see, the existing U.N. Security Council resolutions which expressly forbade North Korea from conducting exactly the kind of action which it itself acknowledges it took here." Wood resorted to praising the Security Council's "unified expression of concern."

Reporters also challenged the administration's assumption that North Korea's actions have "further isolated itself from the community of nations." President Obama called for more sanctions against North Korea, but other Council members have shown little interest in using economic or political pressure against the regime. Chinese diplomats defended North Korea's right to "launch satellites." Russia's deputy envoy said that Moscow does not view the launch as a violation of U.N. resolutions.

Question: The other thing you keep saying is that it further isolates the North Koreans.

Mr. Wood: That's right.

Question: How much more isolated can North Korea be?