Just days after its latest nuclear test, North Korea is rolling another long-range missile to the launch pad for another show of force in defiance of the U.N. Security Council.
If the North launches, the council's response needs to be more than another round of huffing and puffing.
After two decades of on-again, off-again negotiations, of bribing and threatening the North Koreans, it's tempting to conclude from the latest spasm of nuclear and missile tests that North Korea can't be drummed out of the nuclear club.
That's wrong. There are ways short of military action to pressure Pyongyang to resume dismantling its dangerous nuclear program.
The U.N. Security Council passed economic sanctions in 2006 after Pyongyang set off its first nuclear test. But the key country - China, North Korea's major trading partner - didn't follow through.
Now the United States is leading a push for even tougher sanctions, including:
-A total arms embargo on North Korea. That's smart because selling weapons to rogue regimes is a major source of cash for North Korea.
-A banking freeze. There's evidence that U.S.-led financial sanctions against North Korean banking and trade from 2005 to 2007 stung Pyongyang. Slap them on again, this time with international support.
-Cargo inspections of all sea and air traffic moving in and out of North Korea.
All of those sanctions, if fully backed by China, could force ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to recalculate the costs and benefits of defying the world.
Will the Chinese do more this time? The prospects hinge on whether the Obama administration gives China a shove.
China is angry about Pyongyang's latest nuclear test, which happened close to its border. The Russians, too, sound spooked. Everyone is aware that the North's nuclear and missile tests may also be intended as display advertising for potential buyers in regimes like Iran and Syria, or terrorists in Al Qaeda, Hezbollah or Hamas.
Even the South Koreans, long solicitous of their poorer "cousins," are growing weary and angry. "We sent them food, fertilizer, factories, more than we give our own poor people," one South Korean office worker told a reporter. "And all they pay us back with is this nuclear test."
In response, the South Koreans joined the Proliferation Security Initiative, a U.S.-led alliance of nations that search ships for unconventional weapons. Good move.
Kim Jong Il has reportedly anointed his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor. There's speculation that the nuclear and missile tests are intended to leave him in control of a country that is a nuclear power, that the elder leader is building his young son's leadership cred by crediting him for this latest show of defiance.
Whatever the internal politics, one point is clear: Kim Jong Il isn't likely to bargain away his nuclear program unless he's under extraordinary pressure. As one senior Obama official told a reporter: "The real challenge is to avoid a repetition of the past."
Huffing and puffing won't do.
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