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News Opinion Editorial

North Korea's missile antics

Under its new ruler, Kim Jong Un, North Korea has reverted to its old tactics of provocation and aggression with the launch this week of a long-range missile it claims was intended to put the country's first satellite into orbit. It's unclear whether the satellite made it into orbit, but that really isn't the point. The U.S. and its allies fear the country's space program is just an excuse to develop technology that can be used to build nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, and Wednesday's launch showed the North Koreans are making progress toward that goal.

Mind you, North Korea can't even feed its own people — millions have starved — and its economy is in shambles. Yet it is willing to spend billions to join the exclusive club of spacefaring nations, and it is doing so in a way that seems calculated to raise alarms in a region where tensions are already rising. That would be worrisome enough even if the country's leadership was predictable and rational.

Some reports suggest Kim Jong Un needed some spectacular event like a space launch to shore up domestic support among ordinary citizens and the military, several of whose top officers he recently purged. An earlier rocket launch in April that failed a few seconds into its flight deeply embarrassed the government, which has promoted Mr. Kim as carrying on the legacy of his late father, Kim Jong Il, to make North Korea a nation to be reckoned with. The younger Mr. Kim had also pledged to make 2012 a year of unprecedented "peace and prosperity" for his long-suffering people. Until now he's been unable to fulfill either promise.

What the launch undoubtedly did accomplish was to show that Mr. Kim is prepared to be as ruthless and aggressive as his father in using his missile and nuclear programs to extort money and food aid from his neighbors and the U.S. When he ascended to power last year, there was some hope he might adopt a less belligerent attitude that left room for negotiation over his weapons programs, whose development has been banned by the United Nations Security Council. But Mr. Kim apparently is not someone who wants to ratchet down tensions; on the contrary, he's a provocateur who delights in using intimidation and threats to get what he wants.

For years, the U.S., South Korea, Japan, Russia and China tried to engage North Korea in talks to persuade it to halt its weapons programs in exchange for humanitarian aid and energy assistance in the form of light-water reactors that didn't create nuclear wastes that could be turned into weapons-grade plutonium and uranium. Each time, North Korea happily took the aid and the money, then promptly reneged on its obligations to disarm.

The U.S. shouldn't, in the words of President Barack Obama, buy that horse again — especially given reports that Mr. Kim's next provocation may take the form of a third underground nuclear test. So far, North Korea's rogue tactics have made Mr. Obama's 2010 decision to "pivot" toward a more robust American military presence in the Pacific look particularly prescient. With China and Japan engaged in an increasingly rancorous territorial dispute over air and sea rights around a group of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea, and both countries undergoing delicate domestic political transitions of their own, an expanded U.S. presence in the region is needed to maintain stability.

A beefed-up U.S. military in the Pacific, especially one involving sophisticated new missile defense systems in Japan and South Korea, would be unnerving for China, and that may give the U.S. leverage to apply pressure on it to rein in North Korea. There are already signs China's patience with North Korea may be wearing thin; this week, China's U.N. ambassador expressed "regret" over North Korea's latest action, about the closest it has ever come to a public rebuke of its troublesome ally.

China clearly was embarrassed by its failure to restrain North Korea's missile and nuclear programs, and that may prompt it to take stronger action privately with North Korea's leaders. The last thing China wants is to see North Korea's antics justify a greater U.S. military presence in a region it considers its own back yard, and whether he is bumbling or conniving, Mr. Kim seems to be playing right into those fears.

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