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North Korea on notice

October 17, 2006

THE UNITED NATIONS SECURITY COUNCIL resolution condemning North Korea's nuclear test was a limited victory for the United States and Japan, but a victory nonetheless.

Bush administration critics and U.N. bashers have been quick to seize on what the resolution does not do. It will not force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, and it cannot prevent Kim Jong Il from transferring a few kilograms of plutonium to rogue states or terrorists if he is determined to do so. But no U.N. resolution could guarantee that, nor could any enforcement regime, even one joined by China and South Korea.

Still, the unanimous U.N. resolution adopted Saturday is historic in three respects. First, it marks one of the few times that China has agreed to impose economic sanctions on any rogue state. Beijing has long viewed sanctions as an impermissible violation of national sovereignty and either threatened to use its veto or abstained from voting. For a nation as concerned with precedent as China to change position on such a core foreign policy issue -- to vote with the U.S. for sanctions against its longtime ally, North Korea, and to label Pyongyang's behavior as "brazen," a term ordinarily reserved for hostile states -- represents a tectonic shift in official Chinese thinking.

Second, the vote at last puts North Korea squarely on the wrong side of the international community. Until now, North Korea could claim it was merely a fiercely independent nation with a long-running dispute against a bullying United States -- a glossy self-portrait that, however implausible, nonetheless generated some international sympathy. By defying the United Nations in testing a nuclear device and becoming the subject of unanimous Security Council reprobation, North Korea has become an official pariah. While purely symbolic, this is progress.

Third, the language of the resolution was appreciably strengthened from earlier drafts. It demands that North Korea return to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty -- the only international agreement that stands between us and a frightening world of potentially dozens of nuclear weapons states. You may recall that, in late 2002, North Korea announced it was kicking out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and a few week later quit the nuclear treaty.

That precedent must not be allowed to stand. The U.N. resolution also requires all nations to "prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to [North Korea], through their territories or by their nationals," of materials or technologies that could be used for nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles or other weapons of mass destruction.

China and South Korea may choose not to enforce this provision. But if plutonium were found to have passed from North Korea to a rogue state through their territories, they still would be seen as complicit in the eyes of the international community -- and they know it.

In this respect, the U.N. resolution changes everything and nothing. It was, and remains, up to North Korea's two closest allies, China and South Korea, to accept this mandate and persuade Pyongyang to abandon its dangerous course.

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