Tuesday, October 10, 2006

North Korea

If we are to believe today’s news reports, North Korea has a nuclear bomb. If you’ve been following the news for the last few years, this shouldn’t surprise you. The best guesses on this most secretive regime was that it was developing a nuclear bomb for quite some time.

The question, as always, is does North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, have the willingness to use it. And this is a question that can only be answered with sheer speculation.

To be sure, the latest reports indicate this isn’t much of a bomb. It wasn’t anywhere near the size of the atomic bomb, today’s Wall Street Journal reports, that the United States dropped on Japan during World War II.

Still, a nuclear-armed North Korea shouldn’t settle well with anyone. It doesn’t help China’s self-perceived position as Asia’s honest broker to see its key ally openly defy it, which it did by exploding a nuclear bomb. And it begs the following questions:

• Do the Chinese still have any influence with Pyongyang?
• Are the Chinese, while officially against a nuclear-armed North Korea,
secretly celebrating this latest development?

The answers: Who knows?

So this latest development begs us for options. Here they are:

1. Invade North Korea. While this might settle well with all of the hawks, the problem with this policy is that President Bush doesn’t have enough political capital to take the country to another war. If North Korea successfully launches a nuclear strike against the United States or Japan, then the President’s political position changes. But until then, North Korea remains safe from a pre-emptive war.
2. Cut off aid to North Korea. This one might actually fly. For years, the United States, through the United Nations, has provided food to North Korea. The deal went something like this: We give food to North Korea so they don’t develop nuclear weapons. Since this deal has been violated, the United States is in a good position to tell North Korea, the United Nations, and, more importantly, China, that it will no longer provide food assistance to North Korea. The latest reports suggest that North Korea, a country of around 23 million people, is practically starving.
3. Give nuclear arms to Japan. This changes the balance of power in Asia dramatically and it won’t settle well with China, which views World War II as something that happened last week. But it might actually be something the United States can do to keep North Korea guessing. It might also be the strongest military action the United States can successfully carry out in the near term. Questions about this option will involve China’s response. China can be expected to react strongly against a nuclear armed Japan. Japan might resist this option because it has a new prime minister, and he may not be ready to risk any chance he has of improving relations with China.
4. Complain to the United Nations. The problem with this body is that it can’t resolve the average, run-of-the-mill genocide. So don’t expect it to resolve, to our liking at least, anything as complicated as North Korea and nuclear weapons. This is a nice choice from the standpoint of increasing our goodwill throughout the world; but, seriously, don’t expect it to do much in terms of bringing this issue to a resolution.
5. Do nothing. This policy might settle well with the isolationists in the United States but it’s problematic. South Korea is an ally and the United States is committed to its defense and survival. This is not an option.
6. Find out what the Chinese know. Spending time with the Chinese makes sense because China is North Korea’s best ally. The latest developments in North Korea make the merits of such talks questionable; but the Chinese, on the q-t of course, might release information about North Korea that only they know. Which might help the case the United States is making.
7. Survey our allies in Asia. This means finding out what the thinking is with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand about the developments in North Korea. This is helpful and important but doesn’t provide any immediate satisfaction in terms of resolving the issue.
8. Continue the six-party talks with North Korea. Given yesterday’s news, the possible results of this plan are questionable.
9. Talk one-on-one with North Korea. This is exactly what Kim Jong Il wants – respect from the United States. George W. Bush is in the final two years of his presidency. He’s coasting, you might say, until he turns over the keys to the Oval Office. There’s a case to be made for him to talk one-on-one with Kim Jong Il but it’s highly unlikely that the United States will ever enter into direct talks, alone, with North Korea.

The problem with all of these options is that, with the exception of the first one, none of them leads to the solution which is needed – the demise of North Korea. The problem with keeping North Korea around is that it will likely behave in the same manner – or worse – in the coming months or years.

And it begs the question why does the United States want this problem to remain unsolved. It doesn’t but right now the president doesn’t have the political capital and the military doesn’t have the means of taking out North Korea once and for all.

So we’re stuck with this problem – unless Kim Jong Il acts irrationally. He won’t. He’s far too smart. Be prepared for more saber-rattling from North Korea and a few more explosions.

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