North Korea's fanciful display of fireworks on July 4 has already backfired. How Kim Jong-il, the man in charge of this Stalinist concentration camp of a country, could imagine it would produce any other effect is a puzzle. In other words, Mr. Kim is about to learn the limits of blackmail - or at least he should. North Korea's somewhat pathetic show of force ought to be met at the negotiating table with a united front comprised of the five other parties of the six-party talks on North Korean nuclear proliferation and earn the country only tough consequences.
Fond memories of 1998 may well have been playing in Mr. Kim's head when he ordered the launch of short-range Scud-type missiles, mid-range Nodong missiles and one long-range Taepodong-2. At least in theory, the latter could reach the West Coast of the United States, except that it self-destructed less than a minute into its flight.
Back in 1998, North Korea scored a bull's eye with the surprise firing of a Taepodong missile over Japan, causing the Clinton administration to re-engage in negotiations to stop North Korea's nuclear program. The idea of an armed North Korea was considered too horrible to contemplate.
At the time, North Korea was already benefitting from a deal with the United States, which included a new light-water reactor and fuel, to keep North Korea's economy going funded by U.S. and South Korean tax payers. North Korea, of course, cheated and continued its nuclear research, which was predictable. It may, as a result, have enough enriched uranium today for several nuclear bombs.
This time around things are different. Both South Korea and Japan have condemned the launches, and both Russia and China ahead of time warned North Korea against conducting missile tests, losing face when the Pyongyang's fireworks went up. International sanctions on North Korea have been tightened, and the United States has responded by cracking down on North Korean counterfeiting and money laundering, as well as freezing North Korean assets in the United States. For once, we have a reasonably united front among the other parties.
In other words, North Korea is soon to learn how useless missiles and even nuclear weapons are (unless you have a whole lot of weapons and can survive a retaliatory strike). A nuclear missile launched by North Korea against the United States or any of its allies would invariably provoke massive retaliation that will put an end to North Korea as we know it.
In fact, all that North Korea has achieved so far with its nuclear stand-off and its missiles is to arouse Japanese interest in American missile defense systems. The Japanese are looking at area defense based on the American Aegis cruisers and the Patriot land-based missiles. The North Korean test will also strengthen the hand of advocates of missile defense in the United States. And, of course, there is the real danger that North Korea's nuclear program will spark an East Asian arms race, in which its own very limited number of weapons will become increasingly worthless.
This cause and effect was brought home in a war game conducted last year by the Heritage Foundation and released recently as the study, "Nuclear Games." The study focused on a hypothetical proliferated environment of six nuclear-armed powers in East Asia - equivalent to North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China and Russia - and the United States. Needless to say, this was not a very stable situation, and the war game resulted several times in nuclear exchanges - until missile defense was introduced as a component of the game. If the United States remained committed to its alliances, and if missile defenses were shared with other players, the only real value of the North Korean nuclear missiles was as a bargaining chip for economic engagement and international aid in return for disarmament.
All these points might hold true for Iran, as well. The United States and the EU 3 (France, Britain and Germany) have been offering a package of incentives to make Tehran give up its nuclear program that strongly resembles the unsuccessful deal struck by the Clinton administration with North Korea in 1994. In the case of both North Korea and Iran, disarmament would be infinitely more to their benefit. Even if their leaders don't realize this, U.S. negotiators should remember that a tough line is what will serve us best.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times