The Snail’s Pace For Condemning North Korea

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When North Korea launched a three-stage ballistic missile last week, President Obama was awoken before dawn to address the urgent matter. Hours later, he stood in a Prague square before a vast crowd calling for a prompt response to punish North Korea. “This provocation underscores the need for action –- not just this afternoon at the U.N. Security Council, but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons,” he said. Then–nothing.

The Security Council met in emergency session that afternoon, and adjourned. The next day, a senior administration official rejected a reporter’s characterization of the council’s delay. “I’d be careful to jump to any conclusions about whether the Council is deadlocked or not,” the official said. ” I know the Council had a very productive meeting yesterday.” Then–several days of more nothing.

Now more than a week later comes word that the Security Council (by which I mean holdout nations Russia and China) is meeting now to issue a statement condemning the missile launch and to enforce a previous Security Council resolution, including a tightening of existing sanctions. [UPDATE: The condemnation was issued shortly after this posting. See here.] The slow response, after a missile launch that was expected for weeks and individual meetings by Obama with the presidents of China and Russia, is a bit embarrassing for the White House, which talked so tough a week ago but then found itself unable immediately to back up its strong words. It also illustrates both how tenuous the international consensus is right now on North Korea and how few options the Obama administration has for dealing with the rogue regime. These problems extend beyond just the issue of North Korea and its misfiring missile. As Steve Coll points out in the latest New Yorker, the problem is much bigger:

What can be observed reliably is that since the late nineteen-nineties, when India and Pakistan tested bombs, the perceived value of acquiring nuclear weapons around the world has increased, the cost of rule breaking has declined, and none of this has evolved to America’s benefit.

The Obama Administration does not deny this problem, but it also argues that the current course, of depending on international consensus building, is the best possible strategy. At a press conference last Tuesday, Dennis McDonough, a senior national security adviser, laid out the administration’s rationale for focusing on hard, slow consensus:

Over the course of the last two administrations we’ve seen that when we aggressively engaged the North Koreans, for example, through the Agreed Framework, we saw their plutonium program frozen, we saw the reactor at Yongbyon closed down, locked up. And so — and when we backed away from that in the early part of the last — the early part of this decade, we saw the North Koreans able to produce enough additional nuclear weapons-grade material for significantly more weapons. . . . I will be the last one to defend the basic notion that somehow the situation in North Korea is stable or that the situation is getting better, but I will say that it is evident that when we are united with our allies, either through the Security Council or through the six parties, it maximizes our leverage on a regime that heretofore has shown surprising little regard for how the international community or individual countries reacts.

It may be the best strategy, but it is not the sort of thing that inspires much confidence as it happens. As of this writing, eight days after the launch, the world is still waiting for a simple statement of global condemnation.