The North Korean license to provoke

If North Korea’s latest cycle of misdeeds, followed by international censure, followed by menacing words out of Pyongyang has a familiar ring to it, it is because this behavior has become a fixture of the accordion-like rhythm of Northeast Asian security. But a familiar path is not the same thing as a prudent one. It would be a mistake to let North Korea’s young leader think he has inherited the family license to provoke with immunity.

On January 22, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2087. TheĀ resolution strengthensĀ existing sanctions, curbing the travel and potentially the finances of the agencies and senior officials responsible for the rocket launch.

The resolution leaves open a diplomatic path. It encourages North Korea to rejoin Six Party Talks with China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States, aimed at realizing Pyongyang’s official pledge of September 19, 2005, to move toward total denuclearization. But the U.N. measure also signals a “significant determination” to impose harsher measures in the event of a third nuclear test.

Pyongyang’s verbal reaction to sanctions has been swift and purposeful. Declaring sanctions to be tantamount to “a declaration of war,” North Korea is threatening further missile and nuclear tests. Invective is conveniently aimed at the North’s “sworn enemy” the United States, as the Obama administration transitions its national security team for a second term.

Just as South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye seeks to instigate a more peaceful inter-Korean relationship, the North Korean regime appears to quash that initiative before it gets off the ground. Kim Jong Un himself may be threatened by the mere prospect of a summit with South Korea’s Iron Lady.

Despite a well-trodden history of provocation, sanction and threat, the North’s latest threats should not be sloughed off as insignificant. North Korea’s next nuclear test may well pave the way for a sizeable expansion of its nuclear arsenal. Beyond the obvious goal of regime survival, burgeoning nuclear and missile programs may be changing North Korea’s tolerance for risk.

In sum, although North Korea is taking the world down a familiar path, key officials need to ask anew whether the familiar path is still the best one.

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