The Magazine

Kim Jong Il, Rocket Man

Time to defuse him.

Jul 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 41 • By DAN BLUMENTHAL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

DEFYING AMERICAN, Japanese, and even Chinese warnings, North Korea test fired at least seven missiles on July 4 and 5. One of these, the Taepodong 2, is capable of hitting the United States. Though the Taepodong test failed, North Korea's behavior is a clear provocation and threat to American security. The silver lining is that Kim Jong Il's actions provide a refreshing clarity to the diplomatic charade known as the six- party talks.

First, the other five parties now have an opportunity to demonstrate where they actually stand. Rhetorically at least, the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Russia--not to mention the E.U., NATO, and Australia--have all sung from the same sheet of music, roundly condemning the missile launches. Who was missing from the choir? China--the country said to have the most influence over North Korea and often heralded as a responsible diplomatic player. Although the Chinese foreign minister issued a lukewarm call for "all parties to exercise restraint," he also took care to remind the world that "China and North Korea are friendly neighbors."

If China really wanted North Korea to end its missile tests, to say nothing of its nuclear program, wouldn't it be condemning Pyong yang at least in proportion to its pretest warning? The truth is that while China may be annoyed that its "little brother" does not do its bidding all the time, Beijing thinks that any type of punitive response is a far worse option, especially if it paves the road to sanctions, or even an American strike. A Chinese analyst recently told me that China has an active treaty with the DPRK: It would defend the North Koreans if attacked since its credibility with other allies such as Pakistan would be on the line.

What's more, he said that "some in China" believe that keeping the North Korean threat alive helps China by expending U.S. energy and giving China a card to play in case of a Taiwan conflict: It could draw U.S. forces away from the Strait if there were a crisis on the Peninsula. If this thinking is widespread, it certainly explains Chinese reluctance to do much of anything to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.

Second, the DPRK has once again clarified its intentions. Contrary to administration statements about the opacity of the Kim regime's intentions, over the past decade of diplomacy Kim Jong Il has left little doubt that obtaining nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them is his number one goal. He has pursued this objective through famine, the highs of international engagement, and the lows of isolation. International attitudes matter little to the Dear Leader's relentless pursuit of these weapons.

Advocates of continued diplomacy say that a grand bargain could be cut whereby Kim Jong Il gets all the benefits of joining the international community in exchange for the abandonment of his weapons program. But Kim is like the prototypical Freudian patient: We can only change him if he wants to change. All evidence points to the opposite: that he is quite content with his situation. After all, bluster, threats, and brinkmanship have worked quite well thus far, allowing him to extract the international aid that has kept his regime alive.

Kim is ideologically committed to a policy of "self-reliance," military first-ism, maintenance of the Kim dynasty, and ultimate unification of the Korean peninsula under Pyong yang's rule. A nuclear weapons program is the linchpin that holds those policies together. He calculates, probably correctly, that without the ultimate deterrent, the U.S. would be less cautious about pressing for an end to his brutal rule.

Some argue that the missile test was a reaction to the financial sanctions imposed by the Bush administration on Banco Delta Asia, a Macao bank that abetted North Korea's criminal trade in counterfeit money and goods. Certainly the sanctions hurt, as the regime is highly dependent on the sale of such illicit goods as weapons, drugs, and counterfeit one-hundred dollar bills as a source of hard revenue.

And maybe, as some argue, it was a "temper tantrum"--a reaction to Washington's focus on Iran's nuclear program. This may well be so, but it should not prevent us from taking the North Koreans at their word that they are engaging in "normal" military exercises. To the extent anything about the DPRK is "normal" this is quite right--the only way to improve your missile arsenal is to test it.

With what options does this clarity leave us? The North Korea nuclear problem is the regime itself. Our problem is our limited ability to change the regime. A war is almost unthinkable because of the devastation it could wreak upon South Korea--the North Korean army could deliver 500,000 artillery shells per hour on Seoul if the Dear Leader so chose. The only, albeit less than satisfying, option is a long- term policy of containment and isolation that works over time to bring down the regime.