On Sunday, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea either tested a Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile or attempted to put a satellite into orbit with a multistage rocket. "Whether it is a satellite launch or a missile launch, in our judgment makes no difference," said Stephen Bosworth, the Obama administration's special envoy for North Korea. "It is a provocative act."
"Provocative" is Washington's favorite word these days when it comes to the one-man state run by Kim Jong Il. Mr Obama used the term in his statement issued immediately after the launch, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeated it many times beforehand. The State Department used the word again, only a few hours after the launch. There's no question that "provocative" is particularly apt. So what is the administration going to do now that it has been provoked? The answer will affect not only North Korea, but the buyers for its weapons -- particularly, Iran.
Both before and after the launch, the United States stated it would seek United Nations sanctions against North Korea. Yet China has apparently not enforced Security Council Resolutions 1695 and 1718, adopted after the North's missile and nuclear tests in the second half of 2006. This time, veto-wielding Beijing and Moscow have signaled they will not support any American effort to impose further penalties on Chairman Kim's state. Yesterday, Japan called an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council. In all probability, the efforts of Tokyo and Washington will fail.
What next, then? Clinton late last month hinted that Washington, in the event of a launch, might pull out of the six-party talks to disarm North Korea, but Bosworth on Friday said that America would continue to participate. Worse, the veteran diplomat even held out the possibility of conducting bilateral discussions with Pyongyang. One-on-one negotiations with the U.S. are something that North Korea has sought most of this decade.
So far, the Obama administration's policy has been all carrot and no stick, and, from all appearances, it will remain that way for some time. This approach obviously failed to prevent Sunday's launch and promises no breakthrough in the future. North Korea has been trying to build nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them since the early 1980s and maybe even as early as the mid-1960s. Ineffective American diplomacy has only given the world's most militarized state the one thing it needed most to develop the world's most destructive weapons -- time.
Unfortunately, the consequences of feckless American diplomacy will not be limited to North Asia. As a spokesman for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said after the launch, North Korea's act constitutes a "serious threat" not just to the Korean peninsula but also the rest of the world. He's right because North Korea is not just about Korea. Sunday's test also impacts Iran. The atomic ayatollahs of the Islamic Republic are surely interpreting ineffective American diplomacy in Korea as a big green light for their own weapons ambitions.
How are the two regimes connected? On March 29, Sankei Shimbun, the conservative-leaning Tokyo paper, reported that 15 Iranians were in North Korea to provide assistance for the then-impending launch. Ten Iranians were in North Korea for the Taepodong-2 test in July 2006 according to the Los Angeles Times, and the State Department's Christopher Hill, then Washington's point man on Korea, confirmed their presence (he later retracted his confirmation). There are also reports that Iranians witnessed North Korea's 1998 Taepodong test. In February, North Korean scientists were spotted in Iran for the launch of an Iranian missile.
Moreover, American intelligence sources indicate Iran tested a North Korean missile for Pyongyang. The North Koreans possibly provided missile flight-test data to Iran. Iran has been financing the North Korean program either by purchasing the North's missiles or by sharing development costs and receiving missiles in return. Iranian support explains how a destitute North Korea has the funds to carry on a sophisticated weapons program.
In view of all these links, it is no surprise that Iran's Shahab-3 is essentially a North Korean Nodong missile and more advanced Iranian missiles, the Shahab-5 and Shahab-6, appear based on the long-range Taepodong models. Ominously, North Korea and Iran could be using Chinese technology as they develop the Taepodong-2.
It is no exaggeration to say the two regimes are conducting a joint missile program in two separate locations, one in North Asia and the other in the Middle East. That is one reason why North Korea should not be viewed in isolation. The North may be isolated, but the threat it poses is most certainly not.
Unfortunately, cooperation between Pyongyang and Tehran is not limited to missiles. Their nuclear weapons programs also seem to be linked. Iranians, for example, are said to have witnessed the North's detonation of an atomic device in October 2006. And there are reports that Iranians traveled to North Korea three times in 2003 to learn how to deceive the weapons inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog. In any event, Henry Sokolski, the American proliferation expert, has written that Iranian officials ask him only one question: How will Washington handle North Korea?
Many analysts make the perfectly correct points that, in all probability, the North Koreans cannot now mate a nuclear weapon onto their longest-range missile and that it will be years before they can land a warhead on American soil. Therefore, some U.S. policymakers may believe that Washington can afford to adopt a carrots-only approach to coax the North into joining the international community.
Perhaps that is so, but failure to stop Kim Jong Il at this moment will inevitably embolden the Iranians to proceed with their missile and nuclear weapons programs. In that case, the U.S. and its allies will soon have to confront two hostile states armed with the most destructive weapon in history. So time is not on America's side.
An international system that cannot defend its most fundamental interest against one of its weakest members cannot last. Sunday's launch is not just about Korea.
Gordon Chang is the author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World" (Random House, 2006).© The Wall Street Journal Asia Editorial Page