What if North Korea launched a missile test—excuse me, a “satellite”—and nobody cared? To its credit, the Obama administration has left it to the Japanese to play Chicken Little in Kim Jong Il’s latest geo-drama. President Obama has said only that “we will work with all interested partners in the international community to take appropriate steps” if North Korea went through with the launch.
From the U.S. point of view, the best outcome would be if the Taepodong-2 missile either blew up on the launch pad or fizzled shortly after liftoff (that’s what happened to the last Taepodong-2 launch in July 2006). But let’s say the test is a “success.” How should the U.S. respond? By not giving North Korean hardliners the excuse they seek to abandon the six-party talks that are intended to promote the normalization of relations on the Korean peninsula and the dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
The smart response is to let the United Nations handle this—not because a U.N. Security Council resolution will stop the North Koreans from doing what they want, but because it will embarrass them by holding their behavior up for global scrutiny. With deft handling, the United States could also put the Chinese and the Russians in the uncomfortable position of having to publicly choose whether to stand behind Kim Jong Il or support earlier Security Council resolutions: In October 2006, following North Korea’s test of a nuclear weapon, the Security Council passed a resolution imposing sanctions and calling on Pyongyang to, among other things, “suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme.”