Today, during his visit to Japan, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman renewed accusations that North Korea is supplying Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime with weapons of mass destruction. Lieberman warned that allowing this cooperation between North Korea and Syria to continue would be tantamount to putting WMDs in the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas -- both of which are terror groups who deny Israel's right to exist. Lieberman cited as evidence the December 2009 seizure in Bangkok of an illicit North Korean arms shipment to a previously undisclosed Middle Eastern country. These accusations are by no means isolated. Previously, Israel has accused the NORKs of transferring nuclear technology to Syria, and carried out a 2007 strike obliterating an alleged Syrian nuclear facility built with North Korean assistance.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell piled on yesterday with his own sharp comments directed at the Burmese military junta's allegedly burgeoning cooperation with North Korea on developing nuclear and conventional weapons capabilities. In his toughest comments on the matter to date, Campbell warned that the reclusive Burmese regime would face consequences -- including "independent action" to enforce UN Security Council resolutions, if necessary -- if they don't stop playing footsie with Pyongyang's merchants of apocalypse.
These latest North Korean dramas are coming at an already tense time, as South Korea's investigation into the March sinking of the Corvette-class Cheonan is pointing toward North Korean culpability. Allegations of proliferation to fellow rogue regimes in Burma and Syria -- combined with a mini-deluge (for North Korea) of reports of growing regime fragility -- further complicate the Obama administration's difficult calculus for dealing with North Korea and its provocative leader.
In the past, when Kim has engaged in this naughty attention-seeking behavior, the most common result was incentives from the U.S., Japan and South Korea to get him back to negotiations or to take some easily reversible steps to temporarily slow his nuclear progress. The Obama administration increasingly faces a tough choice about whether to try to get the NORKs back to the suspended Six Party talks through the preferred Chinese method of accommodation or to escalate to a tougher line. For an administration whose foreign policy instincts generally lean toward accommodation, especially where China is concerned, Team Obama has shown some flashes of backbone regarding North Korea. They've moved away from the failed approach of the second Bush term, which, led by current U.S. ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill (AKA Kim Jong Hill), made the NORKs mere presence at the Six Party table the end-all-be-all of policy. It would obviously be a game-changer if, for lack of a better option, the Obama administration decided to go one better and embrace a freedom agenda strategy to deal with North Korea. Bringing the Israelis further into the mix would also add an interesting wild card for the NORKs to deal with.
In the near term, the administration will likely take a few intermediate steps to raise the pressure on Kim -- the degree of which will be heavily influenced by the findings of the Cheonan investigation. (Writing in the Wall Street Journal Asia, former U.S. official Mike Green has some good suggestions on the security front.) While increased U.S. and regional pressure on what appears to be an increasingly creaky North Korean regime will upset its patrons in Beijing, the ChiComs are hardly innocent victims. Going along with their preferred approach for the past 6 years is what has led us to this present, increasingly untenable, point. If their nightmare scenario of chaotic regime collapse in North Korea comes to pass, Beijing will have only themselves to blame for exacerbating the chaos by propping up the rotten edifice for so long.