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October 17, 2006

The U.N. Security Council rushed through a vague and sloppy sanctions resolution after North Korea carried out its nuclear test detonation, and that was probably a worthwhile exercise because at least it showed that the world had paid attention and wasn't amused. Today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice starts a tour of Asian capitals in an effort to reach some agreement as to what the Security Council actually proclaimed.

Plenty of eyes are on China, because North Korea's neighbor and biggest trading partner has taken a decidedly mild approach to the sanctions policy. Some in this country have suggested that this will be China's big test, but the Chinese may not see it that way. Even under the most rigorous interpretation, in any case, the sanctions are more symbolic than anything else; they manage to be provocative while at the same time not having much real substance to them. They are unlikely to do huge damage to the primitive North Korean economy, or to North Korea's ability to mount a military threat against the South.

The Bush administration continues to vow that North Korea does not have a future as a nuclear nation, but it's not at all clear what these sometimes apocalyptic warnings are supposed to mean when it's fairly obvious that there's not too much the U.S. can do by itself to make the nukes go away. They may be intended to reassure a jittery Japan, or impress Iran, or wow voters here at home, but the last thing the U.S. should want is to be perceived (to dredge up a term from an earlier Asian crisis) as a paper tiger.

Washington was adamant that it wasn't going to appease Pyongyang, so it went to the U.N. last week and appeased Moscow instead in order to win support for the sanctions measure, by stabbing the Republic of Georgia in the back and agreeing to a resolution that essentially recognizes Russia's right to interfere in its neighbor's affairs. This was disgraceful - all the more so because in exchange for a showy resolution against North Korea, the Bush administration demonstrated both weakness and perfidy in a way that could inflict lasting damage on a small but friendly country that happens to control Western access to the Caspian Sea.

So now Ms. Rice has her work cut out for her: to get North Korea's neighbors more or less in the same boat concerning the sanctions they've all already signed on to, for appearances' sake, and then to get them to agree to work together to address the much more difficult question of what to do next.

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