Outside editorial: Obama's missile crisis

Posted: Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Hours after North Korea dared to launch a long-range rocket in defiance of world pressure, President Obama issued a warning. "Rules must be binding," he said, a reference to the North's violation of a 2006 U.N. resolution that imposed sanctions on Pyongyang. "Violations must be punished. Words must mean something."

U.S. diplomats sailed into the United Nations on Sunday in high diplomatic dudgeon. They and allies demanded a strong Security Council resolution condemning North Korea and spiky new sanctions to punish Pyongyang.

They got zilch. Nothing. So far, not even a toothless, pro forma "president's statement" from the council expressing its opinion on the launch. The Chinese and Russians insist they're not sure North Korea broke any rules.

Welcome to the United Nations, Mr. President.

Obama, facing his first international crisis, is learning cold facts about world diplomacy.

The North Koreans are frustrating, to be sure. They're hard to read, they're tough bargainers and they don't hesitate to retaliate in dangerous ways.

But the United Nations? Well, that can be even more frustrating. North Korea has staged a rocket launch that can be read only as a threat to develop nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States and other targets. North Korea was warned by most of the world's powers not to launch. Is it too much to expect a meaningful response from the United Nations?

North Korea tipped this provocation weeks in advance, so U.N. Security Council members have had plenty of time to coordinate a response. All we have gotten are three hours of meetings and a promise to spend the next couple of days discussing what to say. Feckless doesn't even begin to describe this debacle.

So far, North Korea's rocket has failed but its gambit has won. Violations must be punished, the U.S. president said. Well, maybe not, the United Nations is saying.

A failure to respond would risk the modest progress that has been made toward slowing Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. Yes, there has been progress: Its nuclear reactor has been partly disabled. But now the negotiations are stalled over complicated you-said/no-I-didn't disputes on how to verify the North's nuclear dismantlement.

So we'll learn something quickly about the Obama administration. Can it make the president's words count? Can it persuade reluctant giants like the Chinese to cooperate on North Korea? Can it work the foot-dragging United Nations into doing anything meaningful in response to this rocket launch?

The rocket launched over the weekend flew for about 13 minutes and fell into the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles east of Japan. The third stage apparently failed.

This was more than a test of North Korea's ballistic missile capability, though. This was a test of the mettle of a new president.

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