Running out of options for N Korea
US President Barack Obama has endured a tough week learning the limitations of being the most powerful person in the world. He was harassed by friend and foe for his failure to speak out strongly against the state-inspired violence after the denial of democracy in Iran, as well as for failings, real and imaginary, on other issues from supinely giving in to the rich Wall Street financiers (as Goldman Sachs denied reports that it was planning to resume multimillion-dollar bonuses) to health care, and killings and beatings in Afghanistan.
The biggest symbolic finger in his eye came as an American destroyer, the USS John S. McCain (named after Senator John McCain's father and grandfather, both admirals), the pride of the US Seventh Fleet and bristling with modern weapons, helplessly shadowed a rust-bucket ship sailing defiantly at 10 knots, carrying who knows what from North Korea to Myanmar.
What is North Korea's Kang Nam carrying? US intelligence sources said small arms or missiles, or related parts, rather than sophisticated expensive weaponry or nuclear parts. But the actual goods matter less than the gesture - the finger from a pariah to the supposedly most powerful nation in the world.
The US warship is helpless because the United Nations' sanctions passed in response to Pyongyang's second nuclear weapons test allow North Korean vessels to be searched if there are 'reasonable grounds' to suspect that banned cargo is aboard, but only with the consent of the captain of the suspect ship.
Sanctions do not permit the US or any other navy to board a vessel, whatever their suspicions, if the North Koreans refuse. In that case, the vessel is supposed to go to a nearby port, and the UN resolution calls for ports to withhold fuel and supplies from ships thought to be carrying prohibited items unless the ships allow themselves to be searched.
So the US Navy has to hope and pray that the ship puts in to Singapore, Hong Kong or another port that might conduct a thorough investigation rather than to sail to its assumed destination, Myanmar, which has been happy to defy the UN.
Stepping up its rhetoric, Pyongyang made it clear that any attempt to board one of its vessels would be 'an act of war'. It also declared that, in the event of war, North Korea would wipe the US aggressors from the globe once and for all.
On one level, a shadow battle on the high seas is just silly. It makes the US look ridiculous, inviting all too obvious David versus Goliath comparisons, in which North Korea is cast as the hero. Chasing North Korean ships is also a game - in that really valuable contraband, such as nuclear or missile materials, would be too sensitive or valuable to go by sea.
Nevertheless, the events of the past week are a real rebuke to the failure of the US and other members of the Security Council for leaving such a major loophole for the North Koreans to sail blithely through. After their weeks of late-night deliberations on the words and commas of the sanctions, did Washington not foresee how it would play out? Or was it that Beijing and Moscow played a charade, resisted effective sanctions and were complicit in letting Pyongyang off the hook - again?
It has become clear from Pyongyang's recent actions - the nuclear test, missile launches, declaration that the 1953 armistice was defunct, resumption of work at the Yongbyon processing plant - that the six-power talks on North Korean nuclear weapons are effectively dead. North Korea wants nuclear weapons and is determined to have them.
This is a potential death blow to efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. If the impoverished dictatorship of North Korea can thumb its nose at the US and the UN with impunity, then a queue of others will follow, starting most obviously with Iran.
More important, it raises the question as to whether the possession of nuclear weapons is to become the new international currency rather than democracy, economic success, per capita gross domestic product, industrial strength, ensuring sufficient food, the rights of women, care for children and the elderly, and environmental cleanup. Can there be anything more destructive than the possession of nuclear weapons and the arms race it will inspire? How long before Japan, easily in North Korean missile range, feels impelled to turn its nuclear technology into weaponry? Or South Korea, Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey?
The US is not the only power to blame. China is now realising the consequences of being surrounded by nuclear-armed states, not just the wilful North Korea. This week, the deputy chief of the People's Liberation Army, Lieutenant General Ma Xiaotian, admitted China had 'serious concern' about 'the North Korean nuclear issue'. Is it too late? Henry Kissinger pointed out in a recent commentary that China has a host of worries about North Korea and it is unfair to expect Beijing to be the deus ex machina to solve the problem. He stressed China's concern about destabilising regime change in Pyongyang.
It's a fair point, but a fairer response is that the choice was never a dichotomy between either a nuclear-armed North Korea or regime change: there is a variety of options, of which North Korea following a Chinese path of economic development would have been the most fruitful for everyone, China included. But Beijing has not shown the imagination or inclination to use the full panoply of carrots and sticks to encourage Pyongyang to come in from the nuclear cold.
Dr Kissinger is right that it is worth another try, not least because the alternative is too dreadful to contemplate. But it will require Mr Obama to show more imagination and flexibility in opening dialogue with Beijing to reassure it that Washington wants only peace on the Korean peninsula. It also means stimulating Japan, Russia and South Korea, as well as China, to devise plans for a harmonious Asia including North Korea and realistic, loophole-free sanctions to deter Pyongyang even at five minutes before midnight.
Kevin Rafferty is editor-in-chief of PlainWords Media