LONDON — In psychobabble, what North Korea has just done would be characterized as “a cry for help,” like a teenage kid burning his parents’ house down because he’s misunderstood. Granted, it’s an unusually loud cry for help, but now that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il has got our attention, what are we going to do about him?
North Korea’s nuclear-weapon test early Monday morning makes it the ninth nuclear power, and by far the least predictable. It probably has only a few nuclear weapons, and it certainly cannot deliver them to any targets beyond South Korea and Japan, but the notion of nuclear weapons in the hands of a “crazy state” frightens people.
So relax: Kim is not crazy. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has negotiated with him, says he is well informed and not at all delusional. He pretends to be unstable because his regime’s survival depends on blackmailing foreign countries into giving it the food and fuel that it cannot produce for itself. Rogue nukes are a big part of that image, but like any professional blackmailer, he would hand them over for the right price.
Put yourself in Kim’s (platform) shoes. In 1994 he inherited a country from his father, Kim Il Sung, that was already in acute crisis. The centralized Stalinist economy had been failing for a decade, and in 1991 post-Soviet Russia cut off the flow of subsidized oil, fertilizer and food, effectively halving North Korea’s gross domestic product.
Yet Kim needed the support of the military and the party officials who controlled North Korea’s “command” economy, and derived their power and privileges from it. Radical economic reforms would threaten their positions. Kim’s inheritance was far from secure, so he left the economy alone and used the threat of going nuclear to extort aid from foreign countries.
The younger Kim had been put in charge of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program by his father in the late 1980s. By 1993, Washington was so concerned that it offered Pyongyang a deal: stop the program, and the U.S. would give North Korea huge amounts of foreign aid. Kim Il Sung died in July, 1994, and it was his son who approved the “Framework Agreement” with the United States that October in which the U.S. promised to send Pyongyang half a million tons of oil a year and eventually to build the North Koreans two nuclear reactors.
China, South Korea and other neighbors chipped in, sending grain, other food and medicines. Kim Jong Il won some breathing space to consolidate his rule — but then a series of floods and droughts overwhelmed the country’s inefficient collective farms, and up to a million North Koreans starved. By 2002, in desperation, Kim Jong Il played the nuclear card again.
American intelligence picked up the renewed nuclear activity, and in October 2002 the North Koreans admitted to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly that they had a secret nuclear weapons program in defiance of the 1994 Agreed Framework. (Blackmail only works if the target is aware of the threat.)
This time, the U.S. refused to yield to blackmail, so the past four years have seen North Korea withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, throw out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, test-fire missiles near South Korea and Japan on several occasions, and now test an actual nuclear weapon. Kim Jong Il only has one card, and he keeps trying to play it.
Kim’s crude tactics were always intensely irritating to the other parties to the six-power talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons (the U.S., Russia, China, Japan and South Korea), and now they are furious with the little dictator. Even China, North Korea’s only ally, called Pyongyang’s test “stupid.” But what are they actually going to do about it?
Sanctions, I hear you cry. But the U.S. has had sanctions against North Korea since 1953, and Japan has had them for more than a decade already — and if China stops sending aid, the entire economy will collapse, millions will starve, and millions more will flee the country. I was at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul in 1994 on the day that Kim Il Sung died, and I remember the panic that reigned as South Korea’s diplomatic elite contemplated the prospect of 25 million starving North Koreans suddenly landing in their laps.
The regime in Beijing is equally appalled at the notion of millions of North Korean refugees pouring across its border, so there may be sanctions, but they will not be life-threatening for Pyongyang. Which brings us back to the distasteful business of bargaining with blackmailers.
Kim would probably relinquish his nuclear weapons if he were offered enough food and oil aid, an end to trade embargoes, and a firm U.S. promise not to try to overthrow him. None of that would cost very much, and the U.S. is not going to attack him anyway. Nor has Kim any intention of attacking anybody, especially with nuclear weapons: He would have no hope of surviving the instant and crushing retaliation by American nuclear weapons. So it’s just a question of persuading him to stop the nonsense.
But what about the principle of the thing? Won’t other countries be tempted to follow North Korea’s example if we don’t punish it for developing nuclear weapons? You know, like we did when Israel, India and Pakistan developed theirs.