October 6, 2006 | Commentary on Middle East
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il is known for being mercurial, but this time he's promising to go absolutely nuclear: Pyongyang announced Tuesday that it will test its first nuclear weapon - perhaps this weekend.
The "Dear Leader," as Kim's propagandists call him, is feeling ignored.
Kim's lackluster July 4th missile fusillade plainly failed to achieve the desired effect: Instead of forcing the Americans back to the table on North Korea's terms, it prompted the United Nations to slap Pyongyang with new economic sanctions. Looks like the Dear Leader decided he wasn't being bad enough . . .
So the Dear Leader is "doubling down."
Of course North Korea says its hand has been forced because of the "extreme threat of nuclear war and sanctions and pressure" from America. But while the sanctions may be biting (that's the point, after all), there's a lot more at work here.
First, Pyongyang can't help but notice all the time and effort going into bribing Iran to swear off nukes: Tehran's not only getting all the attention, the mullahs are being offered all the best bribes, too - all manner of economic and trade incentives, for starters, from the European Union.
Kim must be saying to himself: "What about me?"
By contrast, the civilized world is handling the Korean bad boy's nuke ambitions via the Six-Party Talks, established in 2003 by the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia and China. These have been stalled since 2005. Sure, the breakdown was caused mostly by Pyongyang's playing hard to get - but the Iranians have been anything but cooperative . . .
Plus, Kim - despite his long list of idiosyncrasies, from his platform shoes to his dreams of winning an Oscar for directing - is about as dumb as a fox. He knows senior U.S. policy makers are already stretched thin on Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan - the list goes on and on. Maybe the mere threat of exploding a nuke will bring the Bush administration running back to the negotiating table, eager to cave to North Korean whims and demands.
At least, America (or somebody) might give Kim some goodies to go away for a while.
Or he might see a Korean nuke test as way to make Bush and Republicans generally look bad at home - and so help change the climate in Washington by shifting control of Congress to a party more willing to appease rogue regimes. (Kim could also be taking a page from the playbook of his father, Kim Il Sung, who rattled the Johnson administration with the seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968.)
There's not much any outsider can do to stop a Korean nuke test.
Plus, after all the highly charged rhetoric from the key players in the Six-Party Talks, Kim probably sees the threats of "You better not" as pretty darn empty.
Sure, China could cut off the $1 billion or so in aid it gives Pyongyang every year. But Beijing is deathly worried about exacerbating the grim humanitarian crisis on its border - or, worse yet, causing the regime to collapse, bringing all manner of unforeseeable chaos.
South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun, meanwhile, sent a "grave warning" to North Korea. So what? Seoul has even worse worries than China about a breakdown in the North - and the centerpiece of Roh's government has been North-South reconciliation, so he's not likely to cut off the South's own generous aid streams to the North.
As for the United States, well: Economic sanctions can't do much - there is virtually nothing left to sanction. The military options - and the possibility of another Korean War - make the challenges in Iraq look like a walk in the park.
Plus, Kim knows that the Clinton administration lifted economic sanctions on India and Pakistan within six months of their nuclear tests in the spring of 1998.
All that said, it's not a given that North Korea will test. Pyongyang tends to follow through on its threats, but it hasn't given a date certain for the big bang. It's left all concerned plenty of room to maneuver.
We're likely to see an exhaustive round of crisis, shuttle diplomacy before the North Koreans begin splitting atoms underground. This may not end the possibility of a test, but could delay one while re-opening negotiations.
But no matter how we proceed, we better keep in mind one important fact: No one will be watching how we approach, resolve or react to the North Korean nuclear problem more than our other nuclear problem - Iran.
Peter Brookes, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."
First appeared in The New York Post