North Korea spent about $30 million to launch a rocket across the Pacific April 4 – but it still needs foreign aid to prevent a mass famine.
In 2006, it tested an atomic weapon – but its people still must scrounge for coal each winter to keep warm.
It regularly puts on massive public performances in stadiums – but thousands of hungry or desperate North Koreans flee to China each year.
Can such a regime survive for long?
China hopes so, and in fact still provides food and fuel to prop up the iron-fisted (and ham-handed) rule of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. Beijing does not want to see a unified Korea – with the possibility of US troops on its border. Only once, in 2006, did China cut off aid – briefly – in protest over North Korea's weapon advances that upset stability in Asia.
South Korea, too, remains wary of the North Korean regime collapsing soon. Since the mid-1990s, when it estimated the cost of absorbing the North's 23 million poor to be too high for its own economy, Seoul has zig-zagged between acting tough and boosting the North's economy, mainly with food aid.
Because of these stances by China and South Korea, the Obama administration has difficult choices in how to respond to North Korea's latest provocation, especially now that North Korea is within reach of being able to launch an atomic weapon toward US territory. The US must cater to the interests of South Korea, which is an official ally and the main target of North Korea's military. And it must rely on China, which the US wants to treat as an ally and which, as North Korea's only ally, keeps the door open for US talks with Mr. Kim.
Given Kim's recent health problems and his continuing inability to adequately feed about 40 percent of his people, China may be especially wary now of destabilizing the regime with tougher sanctions.
South Korea, however, which recently elected a conservative government, could decide that this latest missile launch is too much of a threat to the world and itself. It might risk applying more pressure on the North by becoming a member of the 74-nation Proliferation Security Initiative.
The PSI was set up by the US in 2003 to prevent North Korea from shipping or gaining weapons and missiles by intercepting ships suspected of carrying such materials. If South Korea's Navy now starts to stop ships from the North, any one incident could escalate into a conflict that may lead to full-scale war.
North Korea could be on verge of instability anyway under Kim. The military was probably running the country during his recent incapacitation. None of his sons appear ready to rule. Should the US and South Korea now apply pressure for regime change? Should they wait until it happens on its own?
For now, Mr. Obama's best course is to test China's resolve in finally solving the North Korean problem, including the issue of Kim possibly selling weapons know-how to Iran, Syria, and others. And China must recognize that a vital US interest is at stake if North Korea continues down this dangerous path. A US missile shield is still a work in progress. It may not be able to destroy a missile coming from North Korea.
Whether by sanctions or some other means, it is time for China to show it won't let a rogue, nuclear-tipped state put the US, Japan, and South Korea in further jeopardy.