Let North Korea’s neighbors play tough guy this time around

Editorial

North Korea’s pitiful regime no doubt intended to get Washington’s attention by testing six missiles on July 4, beginning a few minutes after the launch of the space shuttle Discovery. It may turn out to have been a severe miscalculation, as is often the case when a government operates on bravado and testosterone rather than cold-blooded calculation.

The fundamental facts about North Korea’s radically failed experiment in latter-day Asian Stalinism remain in place. Because North Korea has few of the natural resources important to a modern economy and still operates a top-down semisocialist economy, the country does not produce enough food to feed its people. The regime is able to seize enough resources to produce military equipment, but its technology is behind the times, which is not surprising in a controlled economy. But it relies on neighboring China for food and fuel. Without China’s help even more North Koreans would starve.

North Korea’s peculiar dictator, Kim Jong Il, seems to go back and forth between wanting to be accepted into the “world community” — more international trade is the only hope for modernization — and reveling in splendid isolation. Having seen the United States invade Iraq, another Bush-designated member of the “axis of evil,” he seems obsessed with the supposed threat from the U.S., so from time to time he rattles some missiles or talks about nuclear weapons.

In this test, however, the vaunted “Taepo Dong 2” missile, a jury-rigged three-stager that supposedly could reach parts of the West Coast, blew up after less than a minute. Oops. A display of potency turned into a display of impotence.

The best way for the United States to neutralize such displays would be to agree to meet face to face with the North Koreans, promise not to invade the country unless core U.S. continental security is at risk, resume diplomatic relations (which would create an opportunity to get spies into Pyongyang) and generally dismiss the pipsqueak dictator as a pipsqueak not worth wasting our strategic resources over. That is unlikely because, despite a suitably restrained response from the White House to the latest North Korean misfire, the United States is not immune from the temptation to substitute bluster and bravado for cold calculation.

If the United States maintains some restraint this time around, however, the latest North Korean show of force could easily backfire. It has already drawn a much sterner response from Japan (which could be hit by missiles that North Korea already has) than from the United States. South Korea, which has sometimes shown a certain naiveté about the potential threat while pursuing a policy of engagement with North Korea, has also been given a sobering reminder that not all Koreans treat others as brothers and sisters.

Mainland China, which provides an economic lifeline to North Korea, has to be furious. It had put a good deal of its prestige on the line in urging North Korea not to test fire missiles and return to the aborted six-party talks. Whether Beijing does something tangible, like cutting off food or fuel supplies, it will make its displeasure known.

All these tangles suggest the best course is to leave North Korea to its neighbors. All of them seem more concerned about the possible threat of shorter-range missiles than the U.S. is, since short-range missiles could reach them. Now would be a good time for the U.S. to bow out of the equation and let China, South Korea and Japan deal with Kim Jong Il’s cultlike regime in Pyongyang.