Three cheers for the North Korean missile test!
George Bush's luck hasn't run out just yet.
North Korea's Fourth of July missile fizzle is the biggest diplomatic break that the president has caught all term—and the biggest setback ("catastrophe" wouldn't be too strong a word) that his most-loathed nemesis, Kim Jong-il, has suffered in years.
For several weeks, a Taepodong-2 long-range missile had stood on a test site's launchpad, while leaders of the international community—not just the United States, but Japan, Russia, South Korea, even China—urged Pyongyang's "Dear Leader" not to aggravate tensions by launching it.
Yesterday, after our own fireworks celebrations had died down, Kim thumbed his nose and launched his missile—only to see it sputter and crash a mere 35 seconds after liftoff. (A handful of short-range missiles, mainly Scuds, were tested successfully, but they were of little concern, demonstrating nothing remotely new.)
If you're going to defy all your enemies and allies, you'd better come away from the gamble with added strength and leverage. Kim Jong-il emerges from the Taepodong disaster with his chips spent and a pair of deuces on the table.
Once Kim hoisted that rocket onto the launchpad, the scenario could have played out three ways. First, he could have bowed to the international pressure, drained the liquid fuel, rolled the rocket back to the warehouse, and requested direct talks with Washington in exchange for his "good-faith" measures. Bush, who has long avoided direct talks, would have been in a spot.
Second, he could have tested the missile with successful results. His friends and foes would have been furious with him, but in the end they would have had to face the fact that North Korea now had not only a nuclear bomb or two but the potential, someday, to pack a warhead on a missile and fire it wherever he wanted.
In either of those two scenarios, Kim would have come out of the game ahead.
Third, he could have tested the missile and watched it fail. That would have been the worst possible outcome, and that's what happened yesterday. It's like a bank robber who gets everyone's attention by firing his gun at the ceiling—and a little flag with the word "Bang!" pops out of the barrel. The only effect is that he's no longer taken seriously.
Kim Jong-il, these past few years, has adroitly played his otherwise miserable hand because of two cards that everyone believes he holds—nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Yesterday's dud raises the possibility that the missile card's a bluff, that there may be (as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland) "no there there." The next tempting step is to wonder about the nukes. We know that he has enough plutonium to build some bombs, but has he built them? Can he build them?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Kim Jong-il by AFP/AFP/Getty Images.