Joe Biden warned during the election campaign that "it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama" with some kind of international crisis. On Sunday Kim Jong Il did his best to fulfill the prediction by launching a long-range Taepodong-2 missile in the direction of Japan. Washington, Tokyo and Seoul denounced the launch as a violation of a United Nations resolution banning the North from firing ballistic projectiles. President Barack Obama told a crowd in Prague that "North Korea broke the rules" and that "violations must be punished." (Story continued below...)
Whether the missile will trigger a full-fledged crisis is yet to be seen, but Japan is certainly acting like it. Moments after the launch, newspapers in Tokyo handed out extra editions on the streets and television reporters scrambled to conduct man-on-the-street interviews across the nation on how "scared" people are of the North Korean threat. According to a poll by the Yomiuri newspaper, 78 percent of respondents over the weekend said Tokyo should slap more sanctions on the Hermit Kingdom. This knee-jerk reaction should come as no surprise. Japan's public has been furious over North Korea's nuclear program and, back in the 1960s and 1970s, the abduction of Japanese citizens who have yet to be accounted for.
Backed by public outrage, Japanese diplomats called for an emergency session at the U.N. Security Council on Sunday to punish the North's belligerency. Although the United States and Japan advocated tough measures, the meeting got nowhere because the Chinese and Russians, both longtime allies of North Korea, called for restraint. Japan, though, is likely to continue spearheading a push at the United Nations for some kind of punitive measure. In any case, nations will be venting their frustrations at the U.N. to punish Pyongyang in the coming days. Regardless of the outcome, Tokyo is willing to impose further sanctions of its own as early as this week.
Ironically, Tokyo's frenzied reaction to the missile launch may have benefited North Korea by giving it a glimpse of Japan's antimissile interceptors. A week before the launch, Tokyo publicized its positioning of land-based PAC-3 interceptor missiles across northern Japan in the event the North's launch went awry. Passersby were able to take photographs of the PAC-3s with their cell phones. Apparently Tokyo gave little thought to military secrecy by revealing the deployment patterns of its land- and sea-based interceptors. One retired U.S. diplomat, who asked for anonymity because he couldn't publicly criticize a foreign government, called it an "amateurish and elementary" mistake that Japan could ill afford to make, especially considering that North Korean has 320 Nodong missiles on launch pads.
No matter how hard Washington and its allies huff and puff, the chance of North Korea giving up its missile and nukes programs gets slimmer by the day. It's not just Chinese and Russian reticence at the United Nations or North Korea's threats to walk away from talks if the U.N. passes a resolution condemning Pyongyang. Like it or not, the fire-breathing generals in Pyongyang now seem to have a bigger say in Kim Jong Il's decision. Since the Six-Party Talks over North Korea's nuke program stalled last year, the relatively moderate Foreign Ministry has waned in influence. For the past few months, the Korean People's Army has made it clear through statements that it is now calling the shots. In late March, for example, the North Korean government thundered that if the United Nations passes any kind of statement condemning the launch, "all the processes for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which have been pushed forward so far, will be brought back to what used to be before their start and necessary strong measures will be taken." Analysts interpret that to mean that Pyongyang would continue to downsize their nuclear warheads to fit on a ballistic missile and turn back on its nuclear reactor, which had been "disabled" last year. North Korean diplomats to the United Nations headquarters in New York have "essentially given up on negotiations," says the former U.S. diplomat. "My only conclusion is that the military is now calling the shots in Pyongyang."
That, however, doesn't mean that the North won't be coming back to the negotiating table. Now that Pyongyang is moving closer to developing a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile, some analysts point out that it would be more comfortable entering negotiations by having a stronger bargaining position. Says Hideshi Takesada, executive director at the National Institute for Defense Studies, the research arm of Japan's Defense Ministry: "North Korea is envisioning to deal with Washington on equal terms by obtaining the capability to strike the United Sates."
Washington, for its part, may have no choice but to negotiate. With its souped-up missiles, Pyongyang could bump up the price tag this time around. "The price is going to be astronomical compared to what it was during the Clinton administration and the Bush administration," says Kenneth Quinones, a former State Department negotiator who has extensive experience dealing with the North. And don't forget the nukes. Pyongyang wants Washington to eliminate its nuclear umbrella and security alliances with Japan and South Korea—demands that Evans Revere, a veteran senior State Department official who is now president of the Korea Society in New York, calls a "complete nonstarter" for Washington. Obama will need to muster all the mettle he has if he wants to achieve a nuke and missile-free North Korea.