Those hoping that the leopard that is North Korea would change its spots with the third generation of the Kim dynasty were sorely disappointed when it announced a satellite launch to mark the centenary this month of the birth of founding father Kim Il-sung. Rightly, the US has suspended a food aid deal reached just weeks before with the regime of new leader Kim Jong-un, which had hinged on a pledge to freeze uranium enrichment and halt rocket tests. But the separate announcement by the Pentagon that American plans for ballistic missile shields in Asia have been renewed are not justified. Persuasion and dialogue, not threats and complications, are the only rational ways to make the blinkered state see reason.
The right approach was used to great effect by China in 2003 to bring the North to six-party talks to end its nuclear programme. But the negotiations have been bedeviled by diplomatic stand-offs, particularly between Pyongyang and Washington, and have been stalled since 2009 when the North quit to resume testing. Kim Jong-un's taking power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, last December, brought hope of a resumption, especially when the deal was struck with the US in February. Last month's announcement of the rocket launch, scheduled for between April 12 and 16, ripped that optimism to shreds.
North Korea contends that the launch is for peaceful purposes, but it could just as well be a cover for testing long-range missile technology. That makes it a provocation for rivals the US, Japan and South Korea, and if it goes ahead, a violation of a UN Security Council ban. On the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in Seoul last week, President Hu Jintao expressed serious concern and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, like other world leaders, condemned it. Shortly after, the US put the food aid agreement on hold and dusted off plans for shields against long-range missiles in Asia and the Middle East.
Using threats to regional security to leverage foreign concessions is a long-practised North Korean ploy. The launch, whether for a satellite or to test a rocket, will add stature to the younger Kim's regime, so is unlikely to be scrapped. But while the US has wisely put the brakes on aid, its push for a missile shield is worrying. Instead of uniting efforts to bring the North to heel, it could strain diplomatic ties with China, Pyongyang's closest ally and the best chance of making it see reason.
Putting a missile shield in China's backyard, first put forward by the US in 2000, will garner not co-operation, but opposition - as with Russia and such a scheme in eastern Europe. It would threaten national security and erase Chinese and American diplomatic gains. China has set itself a tough assignment by putting itself in charge of the six-party process. If the announcement of the shield is designed to force it to put greater pressure on the North, much could be lost.