Saturday, September 17, 2005

Secrets and lies: North Korea's old nuclear ambitions

As always, North Korea doesn't get much attention in the news, but there's increasing cause for concern that Kim Jong-il's "guerrilla state," perhaps the most wretched place in the world, is going ahead with its nuclear program as diplomatic efforts stall.

Here's what Slate's Fred Kaplan says in his latest piece on North Korea:

After a promising resumption two months ago (which followed a yearlong hiatus), the "six-party talks" seem to be breaking down over the North Koreans' sudden declaration that they won't give up their nuclear-weapons program unless the other five powers—the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea—give Pyongyang the money to build a light-water nuclear reactor...

Just before the talks got under way again this past July, South Korea held out the promise of massive energy assistance in the form of power lines carrying conventional electricity, if North Korea gave up its ambitions to build A-bombs. Pyongyang came back to the table, saying all the right things (we want to give up our nuclear-weapons program, we'll welcome back international inspectors, we'll rejoin the Non-Proliferation Treaty)—then they demanded a reactor.

The demand is a nonstarter for two reasons: one political, one practical. First, the North Koreans have been enriching uranium—one method of building an atom bomb—at a reactor that wasn't designed for explicitly military purposes. Who's to say they won't do the same again? Second, nobody is going to buy them a reactor anyway. Russia, China, and South Korea agree with North Korea's claim that, as a sovereign nation, it has a right to nuclear energy. But that doesn't mean that they or any other countries have an obligation to supply it. They couldn't raise the money for reactors in '94, when an international agreement did obligate them to do so; they're not likely to raise it now...

Scott Snyder, author of Negotiating on the Edge (the best book on Pyongyang's bargaining style), writes that Kim Jong-il—like his father, Kim Il Sung, before him—regards his country as a "guerrilla state" and his position in the world as that of "a guerrilla fighter who has nothing to lose and yet faces the prospect of losing everything." In diplomacy, therefore, his strategy is to generate an air of perpetual crisis and brinkmanship, constantly probing for divisions among the diplomats on the other side of the table, ceaselessly demanding further concessions until he's convinced there's nothing more to be wrung...

The danger—not just for us but for the North Koreans as well—is that Kim and his emissaries will hold out for too long... The Bush administration went into this latest round of talks divided over whether they even should. In Bush's first term, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who favored talks, was outmaneuvered at every turn by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and even his own undersecretary of state, John Bolton. Talks are happening at all only because, in the second term, Condoleezza Rice has enough leverage with President Bush to insist on them. But if the North Koreans keep diddling for too long, Bush—or even Rice—will lose patience. And then we'll all be back to square one.

(Be sure to read the complete piece.)

Not too long ago, the words "nuclear" and "option" were used to describe the abolition of the filibuster in the Senate. Well, North Korea seems to be pursuing its own nuclear option, a literal one, and, more and more, it looks like Kim's brinksmanship -- his reckless leadership of a totalitarian regime bent on developing its own nuclear program even as it plays a diplomatic game of chicken with the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea -- could lead to war, or at least to potentially devastating military action.

True, a diplomatic solution still isn't out of the question, but it may take military action (and, beyond that, a change of regime (and not just a change of leadership)) to solve this growing problem. But what would such military action entail?

I've previously written about North Korea here and here.

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