October 12, 2006

October 12, 2006 | Commentary on Asia

Dancing with Kim

Talk about prima donnas and drama queens. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il again managed to get the world's attention and grab the front pages with his "nuclear" test on Sunday -- just as he did on the 4th of July when North Korea launched a missile test over the East Sea/Seaof Japan. The man has an impeccable sense of timing, but the question is what else he really has to show for himself -- hence the quote marks around the word "nuclear."

Allegedly, this is all about North Korea's desire to press for bilateral talks with the United States, something the Bush administration has rightly rejected. In a bilateral setting, the blame for failure would inevitable redound to the United States. Also we have been down that road once with the Clinton administration, leading us to where we are today.

However, we should be prepared to send Mr. Kim an unequivocal message -- with return address 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As President Bush has stated, a nuclear and missile armed North Korea is unacceptable, a recipe for the start of a regional nuclear arms race. We may even want to remind the North Koreans that all options remain on the table from an American point of view.

Mr. Bush, however, stopped short of threatening any military action and called for diplomacy and an "immediate response" from the United Nations, which is not likely to cause Mr. Kim to break out in cold sweat. Still, we do need to make clear to North Korea the costs of pursuing this reckless course.

Statements by U.N. Ambassador John Bolton on tightening the sanctions regime on Pyongyang are helpful, and we should also continue to work to get others on board -- the greatest challenge being China, on whose support the North Korean regime's survival depends. As Mr. Kim defied stern warnings from Beijing not to conduct the test, which he had been threatening for week, a strong Chinese feeling of irritation at the very least should be something our efforts could benefit from.

Meanwhile, the South Korean "sunshine policy" toward North Korea has received another devastating blow. Its essence is all carrots and no sticks -- rather like the European approach to Iran -- and it has been just as effective. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun called the test a "betrayal of the hopes of the Korean people," but the fact is that "hope" is probably all the sun-shine policy has ever been based on. It has also been based on the misguided notion of helping the North Koreans "save face."

But before we hyperventilate, let us make sure we actually know what happened. North Koreans are masters at deception -- as visitors to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea can testify. In the past, the sounds of invasion tunnels being blasted through solid rock underneath the DMZ were disguised by the sound of construction work on the northern side of the border. And within the DMZ, the North Korean "peace village," which can be seen from the south, presents an elaborate piece of theater with happy peasants going about their business. Meanwhile in North Korea itself, people starve and an estimated 200,000 people languish in concentration camps.

All of which is why a grain of salt is in order. As reported by The Washington Times' Bill Gertz yesterday, it is from clear exactly what kind of test took place on Oct. 8. It will take days or weeks to assemble the physical evidence -- detection of radiation levels, etc. -- to reach any level of certainty. The blast, which suggests an attempt at starting a plutonium-based nuclear reaction, appeared to have been a good deal smaller than one would expect from a successful nuclear test. This could be either because it failed, or because it was a piece of bluff in the first place.

Similarly with the missile test of July 4th, which was a spectacular failure as far as North Korea's long-range missiles were concerned. It revealed more of a desire to possess this capability than the reality, and it is incredibly important for our sense of perspective that we distinguish between the two.

Why would North Korea go to these lengths to bluff? Tightened U.S. sanctions in place on North Korean counterfeiting and on weapons proliferation have been highly successful, depriving Pyongyang of much needed sources of revenue. By demonstrating a Potemkin nuclear capability, the North Korean government may be hoping to exact concessions from South Korea -- or even better -- from the United States. It is a game we cannot afford to play.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared in the Washington Times