Most of the international news today has been over the North Korean missile launches. The launches of six missiles, one long range Taepdong-2 type missile, which failed, and five smaller missiles which represent no threat at all, and were apparently launched for the purpose of having some successful launches in the event of a failure of the big one, was done on the Fourth of July, and at very nearly the same time as the space shuttle launch, to send a very clear message that it is a provocation of America.
In fact, North Korea knows it can get away with pulling Washington's tail right now, and will continue to do so. Belligerency has paid off for Pyongyang over the past few years, as they threaten us and we take a step backwards, and there is no reason for them to stop. They can't feed their people, but they always try to gain a few propaganda points by shaking a fist in America's face.
In the past, North Korea has had at least two very significant military deterrents. The first was that they have thousands of heavy artillery pieces within range of Seoul, and could quickly launch a devastating barrage of artillery that would destroy the South Korean capitol within hours, before we could take them all out. The second is the presence of China. The Chinese view their communist brethren in North Korea much like a troublesome little brother, who they'd like to take out and whack upside the head themselves for some of the antics they pull (and may be doing that periodically behind the scenes). And starving North Koreans crossing the border illegally into China has become a serious immigration problem for the Chinese. However, they are still officially an ally of China, and the Chinese would no more put up today with an American army overrunning North Korea than they did in 1950. The North Koreans feel emboldened by this fact, and sometimes act like a feisty tyke, standing in front of big brother and shouting insults, secure in the knowlege that no matter how much big brother may hate it, he won't let you give junior the pop in the mouth that he so richly deserves.
In this context, President Bush's description of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as the 'axis of evil' which would require 'regime change' was pretty stupid. Threatening a country and then attacking them, as he did with Iraq, is inconsistent with American values and what we stand for, and I've blogged quite a bit about Iraq. But threatening someone who you don't have the means to carry out the threat is worse-- by first publically announcing that it had a nuclear program, then withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, announcing that it actually has nukes, threatening to shoot down our spy planes just before the Iraq war started (Bush's response was to ground the spy planes, which rewarded North Korea directly for making that threat), and now with the missile launches, they continue with one provocation after another after another, by which they hope to (and have) exposed America as a 'paper tiger,' and Bush as an emperor with no clothes. Far better to not have issued a threat than to be caught drawing a line, and then not being able to do anything when someone steps over it.
And we are even less able to do anything about it now than we were five years ago. One could always make the point that we COULD work out a way to take out the artillery near Seoul quickly (even if we had to use a nuclear weapon to do it), and we COULD make some kind of an arrangement with the Chinese to sit tight, even if it required massive concessions on our part, but we had to make them, but right now, our army is so scattered around the world, that even if we were able to find an antidote to the North Korean deterrents, we frankly could not spare the 'boots on the ground' to take over the country, and the North Koreans know it.
And don't think this is lost on Iran, either. As they've seen over the past five years, Saddam try to wriggle out of things and end up getting skewered behind what turned out to be a fake deterrent, and North Korea in contrast being increasingly bellicose and developing the real deterrents of nuclear weapons and now working on the delivery systems to land them in the United States, don't think that Iran's recent belligerency isn't correlated with what they see going on both around them and in other parts of the world.