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?
Mr. Wood: Well--
Question: I mean, this is a country that is completely isolated and shut off from the rest of the world. How can anything that they do make them more isolated?
Mr Wood: Let me finish
Question: In fact, it hasn't further isolated them because the international community hasn't been able to come up with an effective, coordinated response.
Mr. Wood: It's early in the process, and it's going to take time. And when you're trying to get a strong response, it's going to take time.
It was this claim--that the Obama administration expected a "strong and effective response" from the Security Council--which left some members of the press incredulous. Wood insisted, repeatedly, that the Obama White House was determined to "send a very strong and unified message" both to North Korea and would-be proliferators.
Mr. Wood: And so we have to give this a little time. It's very early. It's too early for me to get more specific than that.
Question: I understand that, but, you know, you had a strong and unified and effective response from the Council in 2006 that failed to deter North Korea from conducting a launch like this, even though the prohibition carried the force of international law. So it stands to reason that what you're trying to accomplish now should be stronger than that to provide a more effective deterrent.
The reporter's perfectly reasonable use of reason--that it may be time for sharper sticks instead of boiled carrots--seems to be lost on the liberal political establishment. Also lost amid Obama-style diplomacy thus far has been a reminder of the depraved nature of the North Korean state. Under the rule of Kim Jong Il, North Korea has strengthened its claim as one of the most tightly ruled dictatorships in the world. According to human rights organizations such as Freedom House, the state controls nearly every aspect of social, political, and economic life. There is no freedom of speech or freedom of religion. Tens of thousands of political prisoners are held under brutal and dehumanizing conditions. Starvation, torture, and the execution of dissidents are common. All North Koreans are subject to "intense political and ideological indoctrination." That's worth bearing in mind as the Obama White House seeks to create for North Korea "a pathway to acceptance to the international community."
Devotees of U.N. "engagement" are pinning their hopes on a future diplomatic breakthrough. Stephen Bosworth, Obama's special envoy on North Korea, emphasized the importance of further six-nation talks with the regime over its illicit nuclear program. "We must deal with North Korea as we find it," he said, "not as we would like it to be." What we find in North Korea, though, is one of the world's leading exporters of missile technology, a rogue state that hawks its weapons to Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. What we find, thanks to last week's unchallenged launch, is a government with greater cache in the international black market for long-range missiles. What we find, in fact, is a paranoid communist dictatorship prepared to starve its own people in order to feed its nuclear ambitions.
These facts, coupled with the flaccid response of the Security Council, give North Korea the upper hand. As one reporter put it during last week's State Department briefing, the missile launch appears to be "an unambiguous win" for North Korea. That suggestion got Robert Wood bristling. "It was not a win for North Korea," he said. "This kind of action only further isolates the North. And the fact that the Security Council is taking this issue up demonstrates how important it is that we deal with this matter and the need for it to be dealt with."
A curious and unpersuasive logic: We are asked to believe that the U.N. Security Council, by the mere act of calling a meeting, has boldly demonstrated the need to take "effective, coordinated" action. Proving in the abstract that action is required, however, is not the political and moral equivalent of taking action. A strongly worded U.N. memo, which triggers no political or diplomatic consequences, is not a bold stroke of diplomacy. On the contrary, it suggests a devotion to diplomatic gestures over real political progress. It signals weakness, a collective lack of resolve, and may do more harm than good.
Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at The King's College in New York City and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.