North Korea's Missile Test: Diplomatic Arm-Twisting

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls for a resumption of talks over North Korea at a press conference in Washington on Wednesday

North Korea's test of its long-range Taepodong-2 missile early Tuesday morning was a spectacular failure, plunging into the ocean 40 seconds after liftoff. But the poor quality of the saber didn't do much to calm the diplomatic fury set off by Pyongyang's saber rattling. Most notable, however, was what was missing from the response. After weeks of talk of harsh rhetoric and debate in the media over preemptive military strikes to knock out the test missile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday called for the issue to be discussed by the six-party forum that has since 2002 been negotiating over North Korea's nuclear program. That essentially amounts to a demand that North Korea return to the negotiating table, from which it walked away last November in a dispute over what had been agreed. Plainly, diplomacy remains the only game in to town.

The appetite for punitive action is limited in the U.N. Security Council, which met Wednesday to discuss the issue. But even if military action against North Korea were a plausible option — and it isn't — it would required a greater provocation than a missile test that remained within the bounds of international law.

The purpose of North Korea's test, most observers agree, is a diplomatic pressure play. By reminding the international community that if left untended, North Korea can threaten global security, Pyongyang hopes to force the U.S. to restart talks over its nuclear program on North Korea's own terms. The nations involved in the six-party forum — North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. — have not met since last November, when discussions broke down over an agreement that would dismantle North Korea's nuclear program in exchange for a range of economic and political incentives. Since then, North Korea has continued to press for direct talks with the Bush Administration, which Washington has refused. And the U.S. has been quietly applying a chokehold to the regime's finances by clamping down on its money-laundering activities in the banks of the Chinese island of Macau.

The North Korean missile test appears to be an attempt by North Korea to break the diplomatic impasse — possibly out of desperation to relieve the financial stress on its sclerotic economy. But there's little agreement among the principals on how to respond. Russia and China have made clear they are unlikely to support any U.N. sanctions. Even though South Korean and Chinese leaders both warned the North Koreans, as friends, to refrain from test firing the missiles, they may be unlikely to translate their pique into punitive action. Both countries fear that if the regime is pressed to the wall, it could launch a cataclysmic confrontation. And even the potential collapse of the regime is feared as a dangerous destabilizing factor by its both neighbors.

Both China and South Korea may instead use their considerable engagement with North Korea's economy to quietly but firmly prod Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. But they, along with Russia, may put as much pressure on the Bush administration — to offer North Korea security guarantees as part of a grand bargain to resolve the nuclear issue.

It's too soon to tell whether North Korea overplayed its hand by launching missiles in the hope of tipping the diplomatic balance in its favor. It has certainly drawn condemnation from all quarters, and squandered some of the advantage it enjoyed when Beijing and Seoul were becoming increasingly critical of the U.S. over the failure of the talks. But North Korean leader Kim Jong-il will certainly remember how his provoking of previous crises eventually brought diplomatic gains rather than punishment; North Korea's 1998 missile tests, for example, brought direct talks for Kim with South Korea and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Even the Bush administration, which rejected the Clinton-era approach as rewarding North Korea's bad behavior, was forced to move in the same direction by joining the six-party process in 2002, after first spurning the idea of offering Pyongyang incentives to change its ways.

Even now, after weeks of warnings that North Korea would suffer harsh consequences if it went ahead with a test, the U.S. and its allies may be confronting the reality that there are precious few options to turn those warnings into punishments. The crisis — if that is what it really is — won't necessarily play out as Pyongyang desires. But it has a good chance of getting some of what it wants in a resumption of negotiations over a package of rewards for North Korea in exchanged for it changing its behavior.