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North Korea's projectile dysfunction

Defying an international outcry, North Korea yesterday launched a rocket that looked vaguely like a hand-me-down they'd found it in some NASA thrift store, and slapped their flag and markings on the sides. Given that it's a country that prioritizes the growth of its military power over even feeding its own people, one might have expected better. North Korea certainly did; breaking with their usual lockdown secrecy, they invited a coterie of international journalists to the launch (including NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, who spoke to Rachel Maddow about it last night in the video below).

But once again, North Korea discovered the difference between being iconoclastic, and merely isolationist, adding to a history of failed ballistic endeavors. Yesterday's launch, intended to celebrate the 100th birthday of the country's founder, Kim Il-Sung, went over like a wet candle: what was a major embarrassment to the North and its young new leader, the rocket disintegrated moments after the launching, and American and Japanese officials said its remnants fell harmlessly into the sea.

The New York Times added that this even the North Koreans, given their international guests, couldn't get away with the kind of lies they're known for; their state-run news media reported the failure several hours after it happened. But while it's tempting to make North Korea a laughingstock, the White House certainly isn't:

"Despite the failure of its attempted missile launch, North Korea’s provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments," the White House said Thursday night in a prepared statement. "North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry."

Still, what will the United States actually do to respond, beyond a statement of disapproval? What can they do? Perhaps withdraw food aid they ensured in February in exchange for North Korea freezing their nuclear program? They threatened that when this rocket launch was announced, and followed through today -- but that didn't prove to be a deterrent. But what keeps the U.S. from, say, military retaliation? Is it the fact that with their current capability, as one expert told Wired's Spencer Ackerman, "they’ll be able to hit us the Wednesday after never"? Or is it something else?

Writing in Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, Jennifer Lind reminds us why North Korea can pull stunts like this without much fear of anything more than sanctions and words:

The first leg of Pyongyang’s strategic triad is its “madman” image: the idea that the country might react to retaliation by plunging the peninsula into general war. North Korean officials are not irrational, as so often depicted in the media. Rather, they are following in the tradition of U.S. President Richard Nixon, who spoke of feigning irrationality in order to intimidate his adversaries. Through its wild rhetoric and behavior at home and abroad, Pyongyang has told the world that in the international game of chicken, it will not swerve ... This reputation has helped convince [U.S. and South Korean] leaders that they cannot rely upon the normal rules of deterrence, that with such an opponent, tit-for-tat retaliation is too risky and too likely to lead to all-out war.

Make no mistake: no one thinks that North Korea would actually win that war. The country is dwarfed economically by South Korea, and the military balance long ago shifted against the North. In the late 1990s, military analysts concluded that [the U.S. and South Korea] would prevail should a war ever be fought, and the ensuing two decades of famine and energy shortages have only weakened North Korea’s position. But even though Pyongyang would lose this war, no one wants to fight it, either.

Other options will surely be discussed today when the United Nations Security Council meets today at 10:00am Eastern time. What else is on our radar this morning: