Obama's Crisis Management: North Korea, Again

The United Nations Security Council approved tougher sanctions against North Korea.

President Barack Obama changed the old kabuki in dealing with his second North Korean crisis. The first time around, back in April, dealing with a long-range missile test that failed to place a satellite in orbit, Obama treated the effort as more of the same rather baffling attention-seeking by the Hermit Kingdom. This time, after a string of provocations including an underwhelming underground nuclear detonation, a series of missile launches, and the imprisonment of two California-based journalists, Obama went in another, tougher, direction that may lead to a naval confrontation.

North Korea, one of the most secretive nations on the planet, has been developing missiles and working for years on a nuclear weapons program. In the long-established pattern, the North Korean regime engages in provocative acts and the US and allies pay it off, while working to limit the risk from North Korea's activities and promoting sanctions that don't accomplish much.

In 2008, President George W. Bush -- who in 2002 proclaimed North Korea part of the "Axis of Evil" with Iraq and Iran -- actually removed North Korea from the list of terrorist states.

Defense Secretary Bob Gates declared North Korea's latest actions "a grave threat" at last week's meeting of Asian defense ministers in Singapore.

Naturally, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich claimed Obama was making America less safe by his handling of the April crisis.

Obama was also dealing with the Somali pirates crisis in April, ordering the Navy Seal team rescue of a captured American freighter captain. Then Obama gave more attention in his public statements, though less in private discussion, to the North Korean missile launch during that crisis.

That's because North Korea, unlike the Somali pirates, is a nation-state. And because North Korea has a pretty well-established pattern of trying to get attention and validation through various missile launches and brandishings of nuclear reactors. In a sense, it was all part of an established kabuki.

The launch actually failed in its mission of putting a North Korean satellite in to orbit. While the first stage of the rocket was successful, launching it over an agitated Japan, failure occurred somewhere in the second or third stages.

In June 2008, then President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the terrorist state list and ended key trade sanctions.

Some over on the American right said that Obama should have stopped the North Korean launch. Obama had ordered US Navy destroyers with anti-missile capability into the area, but did not order the shoot-down.

A fulminating Gingrich said the missile should have been stopped, if not shot down, perhaps by special operations forces. He was quite vague, actually, perhaps because what he was saying didn't make much sense.

Since the missile could have been shot down, it wasn't necessary to actually do so. And North Korea - which the Bush/Cheney Administration removed from the list of threatening rogue nations after going through this sort of thing on several previous occasions - has a habit of making a spectacle of itself in order to publicize one of its few industries which actually has some success, and to try to get international aid.

This time around, Obama, working through the United Nations to gain legitimacy for his strategy, moved against North Korea's lucrative arms trade. The United Nations Security Council action came slower than anticipated in levying tough new sanctions against North Koreas for its recent string of international provocations.

But it did come today, with a unanimous vote, including support from frequent North Korean allies China and Russia.

North Korea made a show last summer of destroying a nuclear reactor tower that was the most visible symbol of its nuclear weapons program.

One reason for the slowness of UN Security Council action is that the resolution gives other nations legal sanction for naval interdiction of North Korean shipping to see if nuclear materials and technology or advanced rocketry is being sent elsewhere in the world.

Think of it as a potential "quarantine." That's the phrase then President John F. Kennedy used to describe his sending the Navy to inspect shipping coming into Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A country may refuse inspection of one of its flagged ships at sea, but then has to direct the ship to a nearby port for inspection by local authorities. If it refuses that, it triggers a Security Council session and likely sanctions. So there may be ways around this move. But giving the Navy the legal right under international law to challenge any suspect shipping is a major escalation of tactics against North Korea that will give its potential partners great pause.

North Korea promised "merciless retaliation" to any nation trying to interfere with its missile test earlier in the spring.

Meanwhile, North Korea may be prepping a third underground detonation of a nuclear device. The first was in October 2006 and the second was last month. Both were underwhelming in terms of yield, well below the weapons used in 1945 by the US against Japan. And detonating a nuclear device underground is still a far cry from delivering a warhead.

North Korea may also be prepping a long-range missile test. Its last such, early this spring, was something of a dud. The Hermit Kingdom sought to place a satellite in orbit. But failed miserably at the task.

It's unlikely to take this biggest challenge yet to its ability to peddle its weaponry lying down. Or at least, not without a lot of barking.