November 20, 2010

November 20, 2010 | Commentary on North Korea

Next of Kim no Upgrade

Over the weekend, North Korea promised a “1,000-fold” rise in its military strength, The Associated Press reported. And Pyongyang may be keeping its word.

For example, the Institute for Science and International Security, a U.S.-based research group, says that North Korea is busy as a beaver, building its bomb-making capabilities. It says Pyongyang is up to something suspicious at the home of its plutonium-based nuclear-weapons program at Yongbyon, and not even trying to conceal the work from satellites.

And that’s not all. According to ISIS, Pyongyang also is making progress on producing nukes by enriching uranium to high levels.

The immediate cause of the “1,000-fold” threat seems to be the U.S. refusal to ease sanctions against Pyongyang before a new round of talks on North Korea’s nukes. But that’s just part of the story:

Heir to the Kim-dom: Dictator Kim Jong-il is preparing his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to take over the family business. The kid is shy of 30, but daddy is ailing - hence Junior’s recent appointment as a four-star general, despite his lack of military service

Papa Kim (who inherited the job from his pop, Kim Il Sung) surely wants the world, especially the United States, South Korea and Japan, to know that, despite the transition, North Korea will remain a force to be reckoned with.

Last spring, Pyongyang sank a South Korean naval corvette without provocation. Will the new Gen. Kim try to top that to prove his mettle?

Feed us or we’ll kill you: The reclusive, Stalinist state has flirted with economic reform, but pulled back every time - afraid of losing control if it unleashes even Chinese-style market forces.

While the regime ekes out a living by hawking ballistic missiles, trafficking heroin and counterfeiting U.S. currency, jeans and cigarettes, it’s always on the lookout for some “scraps” from the negotiating table.

As such, it won’t show any willingness to come back to talks over its nuke program unless the invitation is adorned with enticing offers of food and energy aid. Atomic activity increases the incentive to be generous.

Nukes R Us: Another reason for the uptick in bomb work is to start the new leader off well in another growing Kim family enterprise designed for anti-U.S. fun as well as profit: nuclear-weapons proliferation.

As you’ll recall, the North Koreans were building a Syrian reactor until the Israelis destroyed it in 2007. That cooperation may continue. The North may also be helping Burma (or Myanmar, as the ruling junta calls it) with nukes, eventually allowing it to fend off criticism over its internal repression and international drug trafficking.

There’s also concern that, while Iran’s only known nuclear-weapons program is uranium-based, Pyongyang may be helping Tehran develop a plutonium bomb now that Iran has a reactor on line.

Even with a new king . . . er, Kim in charge in North Korea, nukes will stay front and center of Pyongyang’s policies and priorities, which is unfortunate for not only the hungry North Korean people but also for the rest of the world.

Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow Peter Brookes is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in The Boston Herald