North Korea's apparently successful launch of its Unha-3 rocket was inevitable after the failed launch nine months ago. There were no signs then or ever that the North Koreans were planning to give up. Indeed, the missile launch seemed directly related to another launch – that of North Korea's newest beloved leader, Kim Jong-un – and the domestic politics surrounding it.
But the question has never been whether the North Koreans were going to abandon their efforts to marry a nuclear warhead to an intercontinental missile. The real issue is what the rest of the world plans to do about it.
The missile launch proceeded despite two United Nations Security Council resolutions and pressure from all of North Korea's neighbours, including, apparently, considerable pressure from the Chinese. International condemnation will surely include new sanctions, or at least a renewed effort to enforce existing ones.
The only plausible interpretation of the launch, however, is that the North Koreans simply do not care what the rest of the world thinks about them. To the extent there is any calculation on their part, it is that we will huff and puff and inevitably move on to another of the world's numerous crises.
In fact, the challenge posed by a country that behaves with such impunity, that so recklessly jeopardizes its neighbours' security, needs to be decisively confronted. But the question remains how.
First, it is important to identify what clearly does not work and may actually be counterproductive. While a diplomatic track alone will not suffice to persuade the North Koreans to behave properly, those who focus more on the failure of diplomacy than on the North Koreans' perfidy have unwittingly aided and abetted the North. By declaring diplomacy worthless, they have written off the chance of working with partners and allies, all of whom insist on a robust diplomatic track.
The denigration of diplomacy is music to the North Koreans' tone-deaf ears, unless, of course, it is accompanied by a realistic policy alternative. But it seldom is. Bellicose statements from the bowels of distant think tanks also have the unintended consequence of gaining support for North Korea among those who might be inclined, for whatever reason, to blame others for its behaviour.
Who would ever do that? Some South Koreans, for starters. Back in 2004, public-opinion surveys in South Korea consistently demonstrated that a large minority – almost a majority – was willing to blame the United States for North Korea's abhorrent behaviour. In turn, US hardliners accused South Koreans of not being tough enough, an accusation that came easily to those living thousands of miles away from the threat –& and one that, at the time, allowed a vital alliance to fray.
The critics of diplomacy also seem to have another target in mind. In addition to deriding talks with the North Koreans, they want to make clear that China – their new Evil Empire – is part of the problem rather than the solution, in effect stacking the data in order to be proven right.
Another group of unhelpful Western critics regards North Korea as proof that even paranoids have enemies, and that it is the West's responsibility to overcome the North's presumption of a hostile policy against it. Objectively, it is difficult to be fair-minded about a gulag state that stifles free expression more thoroughly than the worst Middle East autocrats ever could, and that manages its population's daily needs in a way that can charitably be described as medieval (a description that could also be applied to its succession process).
But the fact is, during the so-called six-party talks that began in 2003, five countries – including four key neighbours – offered North Korea a general peace agreement, guarantees of no hostile intent, a Korean Peninsula peace agreement, economic assistance, membership in a regional association, diplomatic relations, and a path to civil nuclear energy. The North Koreans left all of this on the table.& They did not follow up on these offers, seek to verify their implementation, or propose any sequencing steps to ensure that their denuclearization requirement would not be excessively frontloaded. The history of negotiations with North Korea has not been, as some critics would suggest, a history of broken promises on the part of the international community. North Korean behaviour is another matter.
What will need to happen in the weeks ahead is a multi-track approach:
Hold the door open for negotiation and reaffirm the offers made in the Six Party Joint Statement;
Toughen sanctions, especially their enforcement;
Thicken anti-missile deployments in the region.
The third track is extremely expensive, but, even to missile-defence critics (and there are many), it is the proverbial bad idea whose time has come. Missile defence works.
The North Koreans are still celebrating their missile launch (their television announcer's enthusiasm made her look as though she were about to explode on camera). But they will soon have to face the fact that anti-missile technology may well be catching up with that of offensive missiles – and perhaps surpassing it. It would not be the first time in history that a brutal but dated totalitarian regime made a huge investment in something that was fast becoming obsolete.