HONG KONG — North Korea demonstrated last week that it knows how to blow an atomic-bomb-size hole through the hot air and pretensions of the so-called rulers of the world. U.S. President Barack Obama was exposed as the outraged huffer and puffer in chief against North Korea’s nuclear test, but he was in good company with other leaders who condemned the North but did nothing practical to deter it.
Pyongyang’s behavior is more serious than the tantrums of an unruly brat seeking attention. What is at stake is the peace and security of the whole world. China, just as much as the United States, Japan and South Korea, should take careful note and lead the search for a more realistic way to react.
While Obama was promising unspecified “international action” and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was threatening unknown “consequences” against North Korea’s “belligerence,” old Korea hands were urging cool heads and caution.
One good reason is that sanctions against North Korea clearly have not deterred the regime. Other obvious options won’t easily work. An invasion or military attack on North Korea would face the world’s fourth-biggest armed forces, would probably lead to the devastation of Seoul, as well as send millions of already impoverished North Koreans fleeing to China.
Western Korea-watchers also fear to upset North Korea during a succession struggle. “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il is visibly ailing: his paunch has shrunk and his trademark air-blown hairdo has lost some of its fuzz. He is either trying to clear the way through his own military for his youngest son to succeed or to bolster his own reputation before he dies.
Stephen Bosworth, U.S. President Obama’s special envoy for Korea, had said before the latest crisis that “pressure is not the most productive line of approach” in dealing with North Korea and predicted that talks would resume after a “cooling-off period.”
Some liberals also contend that North Korea is no threat to anyone. It has conducted only two nuclear tests against 1,030 by the U.S., and has not perfected even a short-range missile delivery.
North Korea reacted to the world outrage by moving cleverly between stepped up rhetoric and further provocations that demonstrated determination to acquire usable nuclear weapons. It followed its nuclear test by firing off several short-range missiles to demonstrate its delivery capacity. The message is that South Korea and Japan are within range of North Korean missiles and the U.S. soon will be.
When South Korea agreed to join the Proliferation Security Initiative to intercept vessels suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction, the North declared that this amounted to an act of war and it no longer considered itself bound by the 1953 armistice that halted the bloody Korean war and divided the Peninsula. There is also growing evidence that Pyongyang has restarted its reprocessing plant at Yongbyon.
When the 1953 armistice stopped the carnage, all of the Korean Peninsula was devastated and impoverished. Today, the land to the north of the demilitarized zone contains 24 million people, most of whom are poor as dirt. The land to the south, with fewer natural resources, contains 48 million people with average income of $25,000 enjoying one of the world’s most developed economies.
But Pyongyang is threatening more than peace on the Peninsula. Its actions are especially damaging to the United Nations and the tattered system of global governance. Yet again, a rogue nation has defied the world. What did the supreme conference of world rulers do? They went into a huddle to decide whether to sternly and solemnly rebuke North Korea or to give Pyongyang another chance. Days later, they were still huddled trying to agree on a plan.
North Korea’s nuclear capacity makes its actions more dangerous than adolescent tantrums. Today, North Korea, tomorrow, some other more ambitious rogue state will be flexing its muscles. Equally dangerous is North Korea’s ability to export its nuclear knowhow. North Korea and Iran have complementary needs and deficiencies in their nuclear knowhow, with Pyongyang possessing the uranium metallurgy and plutonium technology and nuclear test data that Tehran lacks, and Tehran, the uranium centrifuge materials and technology that Pyongyang lacks.
Another chilling report was that North Korea resumed its nuclear activity because there were potential buyers waiting in Syria and the Middle East.
Pyongyang has been able to flaunt its nuclear activities because sanctions have proved empty, principally because it was left to individual countries to decide how and to which goods to apply sanctions. Russia allows watches under $2,000, and fur coats under $10,000 to go freely to North Korea. The U.S. has virtually no links with Pyongyang and, therefore, no capacity for arm-twisting.
China has, but China has chosen to keep its hand off North Korea’s jugular, and off the Dear Leader’s jugular too. China is the main supplier of North Korea’s food and oil and energy as well as the conduit for the Mercedes cars, XO brandy and other goodies that indulge Kim Jong Il.
U.S. rightwing critics claim that China prefers to keep North Korea as its puppet state and would fear a strong reunified Korea. But they should acknowledge Beijing’s fears that if North Korea fell apart, China, along with South Korea, would be left to pick up the pieces. It would be far messier and more costly than to unite Korea under the best of circumstances than it was to achieve German reunification.
Now, surely, it is time for Beijing to reassess its policies. The longer the evil day of reckoning for North Korea is postponed, the messier it will be. China should apply the squeeze of sanctions gently but determinedly to bring Pyongyang to its senses and persuade Kim Jong Il or his successor that the way to become a true National Hero is to develop not the nuclear industry but the whole economy. Obama could help by encouraging Beijing and promising that whatever happens, U.S. troops will not face China across the Yalu River.
Japan also has a part of play in trying to encourage Beijing to think of regional and global peace and prosperity and of the world tomorrow as well as today. In this regard, it is a continuing tragedy for Japan and Asia and the world that conservative Japanese politicians are still imprisoned by their own tragic history.
The experience of old enemies in Europe has been that friendly competition is good for the prosperity of everyone, and that prosperity sets up its own barriers to deadly and costly war.
The consequences for China of a North Korea that implodes or explodes would be devastating. The consequences of a rejuvenated North Korea would be challenging but could be so encouraging that China might wish to revisit its attitudes toward its clients in Myanmar.
Kevin Rafferty is editor in chief of PlainWords Media (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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