Now what? Just when we thought things were getting better, North Korea pulled the rug out from under everyone, including itself, by announcing a planned satellite launch to commemorate Great Leader Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday celebration.

Pyongyang (pretends to) believe that there is a difference between long-range ballistic missile tests (which it recently foreswore) and satellite launches using the same launch vehicle; a distinction lost on most others, very specifically including the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which has banned “all missile activity” by North Korea, including “any launch using ballistic missile technology.”

So what is Pyongyang up to? Nobody knows for sure, of course, but many are speculating that the contradiction between its Feb. 29 declaration of a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests and the satellite launch announcement reflects a power struggle between the foreign ministry and the military and party leadership. That’s possible, but recall that the Leap Day announcement came a week after bilateral U.S.-North Korean negotiations; the foreign ministry had plenty of time to vet the agreement.

It is at least equally possible that this was the plan all along. Raise hopes and then test the others by trying to fly a rocket through a (real or imagined) perceived loophole in the agreement. This action is sure to prompt heated debates — especially within South Korean political circles — over whether or not to yield to the North’s interpretation and turn a blind eye to UNSC resolutions or to allow the Feb. 29 “breakthrough” to break down. Sound familiar? Creating divisions within and between its interlocutors has long been a North Korean ploy.

North Korea experts can no doubt come up with a dozen more explanations. Announcing the decision now, for example, will draw attention away from the South’s diplomatic success in hosting next week’s second Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) while drawing attention to itself instead. (Pyongyang doesn’t mind being despised, but it hates to be ignored or overshadowed.) While the organizers have said repeatedly that the NSS is about the security of nuclear materials and not about North Korea, it’s a pretty easy guess where the focus of at least media attention will now lie.

Rather than continuing to guess what Pyongyang is up to, however, it’s more important for the rest of us to know what we are going to do in response.

Seoul has already branded the North’s announcement a “grave provocative act against peace and stability,” but the opposition is sure to find a way to blame the renewed stalemate not on Pyongyang’s duplicity but on the Lee Myung Baek administration’s “hard-line” policy toward the North.

Washington has also branded the announced launch a “direct violation” of UNSC mandates, a threat to regional stability, and “inconsistent with North Korea’s recent undertaking to refrain from long-range missile launches.” This poses a slight dilemma for the Obama administration since it has been trying to persuade others that the Leap Day announcements were not a “food for freeze” deal, arguing that the food aid was based strictly on humanitarian considerations. The North, on the other hand, has trumpeted the link but claims, by its convoluted definition, that the impending “rocket launch” does not technically violate its pledge.

Such nuances notwithstanding the United States has (correctly) placed the food aid “on hold” while it waits to see if the North actually attempts to place a satellite in orbit during its announced April 12-16 launch window. The odds are extremely high that they will try (but less certain they will succeed).

Some pundits have expressed surprise over the North’s action, given its need to demonstrate during the April 15 anniversary celebrations that it has become a “strong and prosperous nation,” assuming that outside food aid was essential to making this claim. But the promised U.S. nutritional assistance is neither in the form nor quantity desired and comes with monitoring strings attached. Besides, deliveries would not have started until well after April 15. Why put up with such indignities when Beijing continues to provide for all your needs with no apparent strings attached and despite your bad behavior?

Alas, once again, it all comes down to China. In 2009, when faced with a similar impending satellite launch, the U.S. (and almost everybody else) made it clear to Pyongyang that this would be a violation of UNSC resolutions and that there would be serious consequences. The Chinese (and Russians) were more circumspect. They had to be dragged into a mild presidential statement condemning the activity, after the fact, as a violation. It was not until after the subsequent nuclear test that any strong UNSC measures were again taken.

This time around, the Russians are already on board, expressing “serious concern” over the North’s announcement while calling on Pyongyang to avoid confrontation and refrain from actions which could delay resumption of the six-party talks.

One would have thought that China, having learned the lessons of 2009, would have done likewise. Wrong! Beijing has “taken note” of Pyongyang’s announcement but the most we have gotten thus far is another one of its maddening calls for “all parties” to act constructively, as if “all parties” were somehow equally to blame for yet another Pyongyang-induced confrontation.

It’s time for Beijing to stop empowering the North. At a minimum, it should state unequivocally that any launch would be a violation of UNSC resolutions and would open the North up to new sanctions. (Enforcing current mandatory sanctions would also be a nice gesture.) It could then demonstrate its displeasure by allowing currently detained North Korean refugees to proceed on to South Korea rather than returning them home to face severe punishment. Beijing could also take a page from Seoul’s 2009 play book by announcing in advance that a resumption of missile or nuclear tests would result in China’s joining the Proliferation Security Initiative.

Rather than follow its own counter-productive past patterns — blocking or watering down and then half-heartedly enforcing UNSC resolutions and providing aid and assistance regardless of bad behavior — Beijing needs to join the rest of the international community in demonstrating that bad actions have bad consequences.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based nonprofit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and senior editor of Comparative Connections.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.