The rockets' red glare

July 06, 2006

What if the North Korean missile test had been successful? What would have happened if that Taepodong-2 missile had flown a couple of thousand miles out over the broad Pacific?

Japan, which is angry enough over the launching of seven short- and supposedly not-so-short-range missiles, would be a lot angrier. So would South Korea, which would dearly love to see the Dear Leader get with the program and not be such a hazard. So would Russia, which is not in the mood for what it considers to be a dangerous distraction at its back door. And so would the United States, which has been chortling a little bit over the North Koreans' lack of success, but which would be foolish to assume permanent haplessness on Pyongyang's part.

That leaves China, which coolly criticized North Korea for the launchings and called on the rest of the world not to get over-excited. But if the North Koreans had pulled it off? Would Beijing have come down on them (diplomatically speaking) hard? It's a real possibility - and some have even wondered if the North Koreans were careful not to succeed for precisely that reason.

In any case, the North Korean launch has given the Bush administration a golden opportunity to reinforce the ties that bind the U.S. to all of North Korea's neighbors, most important, of course, China. Official American policy has been to insist on a multilateral approach to North Korea, but in practice this has not resulted in much, in part because of Chinese ambivalence. Now Washington has a chance to press its case. Publicly, the president is pursuing just that track, but a hawkish school of thought within the administration wants multilateral talks to fail so that the U.S. could switch its efforts to regime change. That would not be wise - look at how China and Russia opposed a similar project in Iraq, far from either - so the stakes right now are plenty high.

The key point is that all of North Korea's neighbors must be convinced that without a concerted diplomatic push, the risks will only grow. Getting China, South Korea and Japan onto the same page will be no easy task, especially considering the anger in Tokyo (which may help explain Mr. Bush's prudent and relatively low-key response). But the world would be better off not waiting to see if North Korea ever succeeds in lifting a Taepodong-2 toward the vicinity of the Pacific time zone. That would drive diplomatic niceties right out the window.

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