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Monday, Apr 6, 2009, 3:50 pm

Kim Jong-il’s Pyrotechnics

By Amalia Oulahan
With the ink barely dry on their $1 trillion G-20 summit agreement, world leaders scrambled to react yesterday to North Korea's failed satellite launching.

On the one hand, the rocket did not send the satellite into orbit; it failed after flying around 2,000 miles, according to the New York Times. On the other hand, the rocket launch could be a step toward North Korea's development of intercontinental missiles, and is one more in a series of globally-uncooperative (and dangerous) stunts by dictator Kim Jong-il.

Many of Monday's papers covered President Obama's rapid post-rocket reaction. Awakened with the news of the rocket launch, Obama called for new U.N. sanctions and stricter policies. But doesn't some of this sound familiar? This was North Korea's third failed attempt at a rocket launch in the last 11 years. Kim Jong-il's little kingdom has been acting outside of U.N. regulations, with little retribution, since testing an atomic bomb in 2006.

So why all the continued stunting and posturing? The L.A. Times highlights the absurdity of Jong-il's showmanship. This weekend's rocket is a perfect example: Jong-il has claimed publicly that Sunday's launch succeeded, despite the fact that "the regime's vaunted communications satellite probably now sits somewhere on the Pacific Ocean floor."

But Slate's Fred Kaplan, in "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Kim Jong-il?", reminds us that theatrics may be necessary to sustain any stability at all in North Korea. Outlandish stunts are an essential part of Jong-il's strategy, which conceives of North Korea as "a shrimp among whales" and aims to play the whales (i.e., the big geopolitical powers) off against each other.

The task before other world leaders now is to balance sudden reactions with underreactions to these violations. It doesn't seem necessary to go all-out over a failed rocket launch, but the danger is that Jong-il will try harder to cause trouble if reactions from world leaders stop altogether.
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