Three cheers for the North Korean missile test!
From a strictly objective viewpoint, the test would have meant little, even had it succeeded. In Cold War days, the United States and the Soviet Union would each test-launch a new intercontinental ballistic missile 20 times before deeming it "operational." The North Koreans, until yesterday, hadn't fired a long-range missile since 1998, and no serious analyst thinks they can make a nuclear weapon small enough to fit inside a missile's nose cone.
But dealing with North Korea is even more of a Kabuki dance than other forums of diplomacy. As Scott Snyder notes in his brilliant book Negotiating on the Edge, Kim Jong-il—like his father, Kim Il-Sung, before him—views his nation as a "guerrilla state" and his position in the world as "a guerrilla fighter who has nothing to lose and yet faces the prospect of losing everything." Another family chestnut is that North Korea is like "a shrimp among whales" and that survival is best insured by weaving a perpetual backdrop of "drama and catastrophe" to distract the whales or, better still, play them off one another.
In that sense, a successful missile test would have raised alarm bells among North Korea's neighbors. At first, they would have voiced sharp criticism of Kim for such provocative behavior. Ultimately, though, they would have stepped up their pressure on President Bush to engage North Korea in face-to-face talks before the danger worsened.
In the same sense, a failed missile test bolsters Bush's disinclination to hold talks at all. "The Taepodong obviously was a failure—that tells you something about capabilities," Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, has been quoted as telling reporters last night. Though Hadley didn't say as much, the implication is clear: Why should Bush make any concessions to Kim Jong-il when, as it turns out, Kim has nothing up his sleeve to trade back?
Pyongyang's reaction to the furor has been a studied nonchalance. "The missile launch is an issue that is entirely within our sovereignty," a foreign ministry official said. "No one has the right to dispute it. … We are not bound by any agreement."
The statement is true but beside the point. The worrisome thing about the prospect of North Korean nukes isn't so much the nukes as the North Korean. The missile launch confirms the worst fears about Kim Jong-il—not merely that he's a guerrilla diplomat who takes wild gambles but that sometimes the gambles go awry.
The Chinese in particular had been urging Kim Jong-il to back down from the launch and return to the six-party nuclear talks that he's been boycotting for several months. (He's demanded direct talks with the United States as a precondition for returning; the Chinese and others have suggested that such talks might take place but only after he returns.) Now Kim has made the Chinese look foolish, and they don't like that.
What happens next is worthy of nail-biting. American and Japanese officials are pushing for economic sanctions. The Chinese are reluctant; they don't want to push Kim too hard, for fear that his regime might collapse and 10 million North Koreans rush across the border into eastern China to escape the impending chaos and starvation. Kim has shrewdly played on this fear, too—another case of his knack for turning weakness into strength, until yesterday.
Right now, it's a good bet that some North Korean missile designers are twisting by their thumbs, if not worse. It may also be—this is sheer speculation—that some North Korean military officers are getting nervous about Dear Leader's latest "harebrained scheme." Is Vice President Dick Cheney rubbing his hands in anticipation that a coup—internal "regime change"—might be afoot? It is extremely doubtful, in any case, that some Bush higher-up is thinking today about new ways to approach the Korean stalemate diplomatically. Kim Jong-il shook the dice and rolled craps. If negotiations do get back on the agenda, he'll have to make the first move.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Kim Jong-il by AFP/AFP/Getty Images.