Nuclear Proliferation 101, Courtesy of Pyongyang

By John Metzler (*)

UNITED NATIONS — The political choreography was perfect — an American president visiting majestic Prague and setting out an ambitious plan for nuclear non-proliferation. An East Asian dictator, defying world opinion, firing off a ballistic missile just hours earlier. And the UN Security Council, gathering in urgent session, discussing, but not quite condemning, the rogue state with even a slap on the wrist.

President Barack Obama’s speech at the storybook Prague Castle aimed high in soaring rhetoric but was punctured by the announcement that half a world away from the medieval spires of Prague, a North Korean dictator had, as planned, tested a long range missile. Flying over Japan, the Taepodong-2 rocket capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, was fortunately a dud, falling short of expectations but still raising the specter that the enigmatic Kim Jong-il will try again and thus continue to hold East Asia hostage to his nuclear saber rattling.

While President Obama painted the grand if Pollyannaish picture of a world without nuclear weapons, he was acutely aware of the growing risk from rogue states and black market atomic bomb technology being a clear and present danger. The U.S. while reducing nuclear arms in parallel with such states as Russia, remains committed to counter the risk from terrorist groups such as Al Qaida to who are “determined to buy, build, or steal a bomb.”

Yet given the Obama Administration’s planned military cutbacks in anti-missile defense research and development, such hopeful dreams are directly challenged by a nightmare of North Korea’s nuclear reality. Precisely the sort of nuclear threats by North Korea, Islamic Iran or someday perhaps Pakistan threaten America, as well as Japan and the European Union. Thus in this setting, the speech could be viewed as Kafkaesque.

Indeed Pyongyang’s challenge has less to do with North Korea’s current capability but with the intent and aspiration; and its inspiration to radical regimes elsewhere.

North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and the regime is working on the rocket technology to deliver them. Japan is seriously threatened by this and thus has taken particularly strong diplomatic moves in the UN Security Council to slap sanctions on Pyongyang regime.

In 2006 responding to Pyongyang’s rocket firings and nuclear tests, the UN Security Council passed two binding resolutions #1695 and #1718 which forbade North Korean “not conduct any further nuclear tests or launch of a ballistic missile.”

Despite the robust rhetoric from the Obama Administration both before and after the missile test, “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished…the world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons. Now is the time for a strong international response,” the response remains tepid.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later scolded that North Korea’s test had “It’s a provocative act that has grave implications.” She advised a forceful UN response.

But back at Turtle Bay in New York, both the People’s Republic of China and Russia played interference and blocked the Security Council discussions from going further offering the sonorous advice that the missile only put a satellite into orbit, let’s not overreact, and in the words of Beijing’s delegate take a “Cautious and proportionate” response. Eventually the Council may make a pro-forma declaration

Still the multilateral Six Party talks in which both South and North Korea are joined by China, Japan, Russia and the USA in discussing a nuclear free North Korea probably remain the best diplomatic path ahead, though Pyongyang will use the test as leverage in the stalled negotiations.

Pyongyang’s missile plan to launch a satellite (portrayed as a glorious scientific victory in communist media) has more to do with internal regime mobilization as it does with bullying East Asia.

In the bizarre political hagiography of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea the missile test is clear and logical; it offers a political benediction to the regime, the Kim Cult, and the military. Kim Jong-il has just been “re-elected” by proclamation in the Supreme Peoples Assembly in Pyongyang as dictator. This period constitutes the celebratory Loyalty Festival, between Dear Leader’s Jong-Ils birthday in February and that of the deceased Great Leader Kim Il-Sung on 15 April. The moribund Marxist state needs rallying points, through both domestic mobilization and international brinksmanship. Rebuffing Japan and the U.S. is grist for Pyongyang’s propaganda mill.

It’s crucial that the USA, South Korea and Japan stand firm against North Korea’s latest provocation. It’s ironic that President Obama’s speech was made in Prague, after all the capital of the Czech Republic, a country whose name has been synonymous with the tragic legacy of appeasement. History must not be allowed to repeat itself, this time in the Far East.

(*) John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for