What to do with this shrewd lunatic Kim Jong-il? The North Korean dictator test-fired a missile over the weekend—defying the brow-furrowed finger-wagging of the "international community"—only to watch the rocket sputter into the ocean before it could complete its trajectory.
The temptation is either to thwack this pint-size tyrant on the side of his head—impose fierce sanctions, deploy the gunboats, send out some mind-messing agit-prop that undermines his rule—or, better still, to ignore him, to start treating his threats and bluster as the empty antics of a desperate thug.
This was, after all, North Korea's third failed test of a long-range missile—out of three attempts—in the last 11 years. And yet the world continues to speak of its military prowess in the gravest of tones.
The catch, of course, is that the last time one of his missiles went poof—on the Fourth of July, 2006, an event of much fanfare, when the rocket fizzled and crashed a mere 35 seconds after blastoff—Kim Jong-il recaptured the world's attention three months later by successfully testing an atom bomb. As far as nukes go, it produced a teeny explosion—a half-kiloton, much less than the (already less than mighty) 3 or 4 kilotons that his scientists had predicted—but, by any measure, North Korea had to be regarded as a nuclear-armed state. That colors our perceptions, and properly so.
However, it will be years, probably many years, before Kim can translate this status into real military power—that is, before he can miniaturize a bomb to fit inside a missile's nosecone, a much more challenging feat than the one, which he has yet to achieve, of merely getting the missile to fly from launch pad to target.
It's worth looking back at the events surrounding Kim's last missile test, the July 4 fizzle of 2006—as the past weekend's spectacle amounts to an eerie replay.
As happened this time around, the North Korean rocket of three years ago sat on its launch pad for weeks, during which time all the major regional powers—not just the United States, but Russia, Japan, South Korea, and especially China—begged and cajoled Kim Jong-il to call off the test. Like this time, the pressure had no effect. Kim gleefully thumbed his nose at us all.
The most interesting part of the story, though, was what happened afterward: nothing. Neither Kim's defiance nor his technical belly flop made any dent on anyone's subsequent behavior or strategy.
A few months later, after Kim detonated an A-bomb in a test chamber, the powers stepped into action, bringing a resolution of condemnation before the U.N. Security Council, which approved the measure unanimously—but, again, to little effect. The resolution had no enforcement clause; no penalties were imposed.
The strange mix of high drama, tense showdown, then limp backpedaling has been going on for decades, and it stems from two immovable facts—the nature of the North Korean regime and China's vital interest in keeping the regime from imploding.
As Scott Snyder notes in his superb 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." Both Kims have regarded North Korea as "a shrimp among whales" whose survival is best ensured by weaving a perpetual backdrop of "drama and catastrophe" to distract the whales—the larger powers around them—and play them off one another.
Nukes and missiles are the only bargaining chips that Kim possesses; his brutal regime and self-imposed isolation have kept the country impoverished. However, every time the larger powers bellow about the North Korean threat or seek to impose penalties through harsh U.N. resolutions, they play into his game—they lavish him with the attention that he needs both to negotiate for goodies diplomatically and to justify his totalitarian reign at home.