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Misguided missiles

July 06, 2006

NORTH KOREA'S FOURTH OF JULY missile barrage was troubling, but only to a point. We already knew, after all, that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was reckless and unhinged. The real news was that his latest intercontinental missile program, the Taepodong 2, has a way to go before it poses a real threat to the United States. The long-range rocket, one of several launched, failed less than a minute into its flight.

The other silver lining in North Korea's act of defiance is the renewed unity of purpose that it is likely to forge among regional powers ostensibly engaged in trying to dissuade Kim's regime from developing nuclear weapons. Russia, China, South Korea and Japan all need to work alongside the Bush administration in the so-called six-party talks. Previously, Pyongyang had been able to exploit varying degrees of seriousness about this process. China has the most leverage with the rogue Stalinist state; Kim's provocation is therefore an affront to Beijing's credibility as well. The Chinese government of Hu Jintao will have to be more forceful in seeking to moderate the dictator's behavior. China, much like South Korea, has at times appeared more concerned with the possibility of a collapse of the communist regime -- with the refugee crisis and other problems that could trigger -- than with Pyongyang's nuclear aspirations.

But all nations in the region should be troubled by the desperate nature of North Korea's militarism. This is a society that may need to pick fights with other nations to justify its repression. The sale of a few missiles will not offset the disastrous economic policies and the international sanctions that starve the citizenry. And the more reckless Pyongyang's foreign policy, the more likely that the regime's collapse will accelerate. It is in the interest of China and South Korea to try to induce Kim to put off his nuclear aspirations in exchange for economic relief that could allow a more orderly end-of-regime transition.

An unintended consequence of North Korea's belligerence, which should further annoy and alarm China, is its likely effect on politics in Japan. Pyongyang's enthusiasm for lobbing missiles over the Sea of Japan has a way of strengthening support for military cooperation with the U.S. among the Japanese -- and for loosening Japan's pacifist strictures. Indeed, the missile tests come amid a political campaign that will determine Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's successor. All the more reason for China to try to rein in Kim.

The U.N. Security Council met Wednesday to consider a resolution condemning the North Korean action, though it isn't clear how much leverage the international community has with the isolated, paranoid country. What is clear is that the region's principal players need to stand together, alongside the White House, in dealing with this rogue state.

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