The threat of more missile firings by North Korea can't be taken too seriously despite another (bungled) launch this week of its long-range rocket. What such firings signal is not a new threat but Kim Jong Il's return to a denial of progress for his country.
Even that is now clear to his closest ally and benefactor, China, which had asked him not to test-launch the intercontinental Taepodong-2 rocket – which, by some accounts, could in theory reach Alaska or other parts of the US West Coast.
The United States can do only so much to restrain the wily North Korean leader without more help from China, which, true to its hesitancy to act, is blocking Washington's post-launch request for UN- approved economic sanctions against the North.
So far, after years of sporadic, multilateral talks among the regional players, Beijing has failed to deliver a denuclearized and demissiled North Korea. Perhaps it prefers stability on the Korean peninsula in order to avoid a possible crisis that might send millions of desperate North Koreans flooding into northeast China.
But the cost of China's choice to its other interests, such as keeping Japan from fully rearming, is now much more evident after Mr. Kim's backsliding with his anticking, fumbling missile launches that break his promise of a moratorium on missile tests.
Rehabilitating North Korea to follow the Chinese model of a market economy and peaceful relations has been China's big project. Kim's half-hearted efforts to wean his country off its Orwellian, socialist ways have been sporadic. Last January, he visited six Chinese cities, inspecting factories, farms, ports, and subways, and praising China's economic progress – which is so different from his own hunger-ridden society. The trip was his fourth since 2000.
China once before tried to teach Kim a lesson by cutting off oil shipments for a few days in 2003, but to no avail. Will China, having now been so embarrassed before the world by Kim's defiance of its wishes, try something with more definite consequences? (In 1979, China waged a 17-day invasion of Vietnam when that nation defied Beijing's wishes.)
If China acts now, the effort should be aimed at solving what really worries the US: the possibility that Kim will hand over one of North Korea's handful of nuclear weapons to an anti- American group or nation.
To prevent that sort of nuke export, the US Navy and some friendly Asian nations have maintained a sea surveillance around North Korea, stopping suspect ships. China risks having even more buildup of a US or Japanese military presence if it fails to act. Tokyo, for instance, is using the North's missile launch to beef up a joint US-Japanese missile-defense shield on its soil. That shield could eventually block missile threats from China, reducing Beijing's regional clout.
To stay in power, China's leaders have kept focused on internal stability and economic growth. Risking those interests to force North Korea's hand – and a possible crisis – is not an easy choice. But, long term, those interests do require regional peace, a pacified Japan, and a US that feels safe.
It's time for China to rejigger priorities.