We have a window of opportunity to deal with a North Korea that has played all of its cards. We know that it wants nuclear weapons and that it wants ICBM technology and that it has the will to use both, and thanks to its failed tests this year we know that as of now it doesn’t possess either one. Its missiles don’t work and its nuke was a dud. But that won’t be true forever.

This raises an interesting possibility, both with regard to the North Korean programs and the parallel Iranian nuclear and missile programs. They both start from the same sources: missiles, the old Soviet SCUD technology; and nukes, the AQ Khan network. It’s possible that to the extent that the Iranians and North Koreans have shared technology and expertise, North Korea’s failures are also Iranian failures (Iranian scientists were reportedly in North Korea to observe the July missile tests). That may be why Iran promised the other day, in what seemed like defiance in the face of uncomfortable facts, to keep on developing nukes. Iran may have seen the North Korean dud as a reflection of its own nuclear and missile programs. With the missile and nuclear tests conducted this year, both North Korea and Iran apparently thought they were laying down a full house, but it turned out they only had a pair of 9s. Not a terrible hand, but not one that’s all that difficult to beat if you know how to play the game.

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to know how to play the game anymore. In his first term, President Bush developed a reputation as a poker player, constantly outmaneuvering the Democrats while staying a step or two ahead of international opponents, but in his second term he has let the Democrats and pretty much everyone else get the better of him (and then the Republicans actually banned internet poker). It’s hard to see the administration now as anything other than a rump of its former self, and that may become even more true after November’s elections. Right now, the Chinese and Russians seem to be gaining the upper hand against us again, using the UN once again to keep North Korea from experiencing much meaningful punishment for its reckless nuclear and missile tests. China and Russia consistently talk a good game when North Korea acts, but then do everything in their power to block serious UN action. The UNSC is supposedly nearing agreement on North Korea, but notice how far things have already moved: There won’t be any reference to Chapter 7, which means there won’t be any hint of using force, nor will there even be a full arms embargo against one of the most aggressive and dangerous governments in the world. This can’t be the outcome that the Bush administration wanted. It’s certainly not the outcome our allies in Tokyo wanted. But it’s what China and Russia wanted, and it’s what we’re all apparently going to get. If we blockade North Korea, it will only be in concert with allies and won’t have the blessing of the UN. I personally couldn’t care less about the UN’s sacraments, but most of the world does. If the blockade sparks a war, we’re likely to be blamed for it.

China has acted entirely out of self-interest. It doesn’t want to deal with a refugee crisis on its border and thus doesn’t want either a war or even a regime collapse in Pyongyang. China also doesn’t want a Korea united under a democratic, capitalist government, at least not yet. China continues to feed North Korea and provide it with fuel to keep North Koreans, starving though they are, on their side of the border and divided by the DMZ from their cousins in the south. But the so-called world community would rather look the other way and let China let North Koreans suffer while their government becomes ever more dangerous. If we still knew how to play the game, we would ratchet up criticism of China for enabling North Korea, but we don’t know how to do that anymore. Russia has acted mostly out of weakness: Using the UN is the only way it can have much political effect on the world outside its borders, and it doesn’t want to give the US any room to maneuver in what Russia regards as its neighborhood. Russia may also be acting out of spite against its longtime enemy, Japan. Like China, Russia deserves criticism for shielding North Korea from deep punishment, but like China, Russia won’t face any international criticism.

Japan is the one country in the region that seems to be acting rationally and consistently to deal with the threat that Kim Jong-Il poses. True, it is also acting out of self-interest, but it’s a self-interest that happens to be good for the world because it helps contain North Korea and starve it of cash. Japan unilaterally slapped very tough trade sanctions on North Korea, and was tested today when about two dozen North Korean merchant ships approached Japanese ports looking for business. The Japanese turned them away and refused to do any business with them. North Korea depends on trade with Japan, where many ethnic North Koreans live and remit cash back to their relatives in North Korea. Japan’s sanctions will bite, and soon.

The bottom line now is that the United Nations will probably prove to be useless in preventing crisis again. China and Russia will use their vetoes to water down any punishment, and the US will acquiesce rather than play hardball and get them to stop protecting North Korea. South Korea will duck. Japan will do what it has to do to survive, with our without help from anyone else including us. We’ll work with our allies and use the Proliferation Security Initiative as well as we can, but as long as China props North Korea up Kim will go on menacing the world. This won’t solve the North Korea problem, and will only kick it down the road until North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons actually work. The window for dealing with a mostly toothless North Korea will have passed. And when North Korea’s weapons work, so will Iran’s.

Unilateralism has its disadvantages, but in the current environment multilateralism may have even more. You can’t depend on despots to do anything other than protect their own narrow self-interests. Expecting them to do anything else is naive and foolish, and failing to leverage the political environment against them will probably lead to very serious problems and confrontations in a year or two. And the UN these days is dominated, or at least stymied, by despots in Beijing and Moscow. It’s unlikely to be very useful for the foreseeable future.

Update (AP): They’ve agreed on a resolution. The vote’s expected tomorrow morning:

In a concession to China, the U.S. dropped explicit reference to a part of the UN Charter that would make sanctions militarily enforceable, changing it to Article 41 of Chapter 7, which only authorizes diplomatic and economic sanctions. Agreement on a draft Security Council resolution circulated by the U.S. on North Korea sanctions had been held up because of opposition from China and Russia.

The resolution would bar the sale or transfer of missiles, warships, tanks, attack helicopters and combat aircraft, as well as missile- and nuclear-related goods to the North Korean regime. So-called “luxury goods” would also be banned, though there hasn’t been any specific mention of which items would fall into this category…

The resolution also demands that North Korea return to the so-called six-party talks, aimed at disarming its weapons program, and eliminate its nuclear and missile programs.

Japan will also impose unilateral sanctions, including a ban on NK imports.

Is Kim ready to come back to the table?

Update: What do you know? It was a nuke test! A … failed nuke test.

Update (Saturday afternoon): Sanctions are a go. Fox just broadcast the vote at the Security Council. 15-0.