In the Arena

Testy NoKos

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There is all sorts of hand-wringing going on today about North Korea’s nuclear explosion, which the Washington Post says is a test of the Obama Administration’s engagement policy. It isn’t. Some thoughts:

1. First, some perspective: the fact that North Korea has a bomb and missiles isn’t nearly as significant as the fact that it has plutonium it can sell to terrorists, who might actually use it. The plutonium should be the focus of our policy; the tests are just window-dressing.

2. There are all sorts of indications that the explosion is part of an internal NoKo negotiation between the Kim family and the military. Kim Jong-Il had a stroke last summer. He wants his 26-year-old-son to succeed him. He wants the military to agree to the succession and therefore, it is surmised, he’s demonstrating that the military will continue to have a strong, if not dominant, role in the running of the country. At least, that’s the surmise. We really don’t know all that much about North Korea, but this test may not be about us so much as it is about them.

3. Military action against North Korea would be very difficult, if not ridiculous. The NoKos are positioned to destroy the city of Seoul the moment we, or anyone, launch against them. (The Japanese, by the way, are more nervous about the NoKo nuclear program than any other country.)

4. The nuclear card is the only one the NoKos have to play on the international stage. They’ve played it in the past to chivvy food and fuel from its neighbors and the US. They undoubtedly want to do that again. They are playing for something better, more dramatic than the recent 6-party talks–and, also, at the same time, probably delaying the negotiating process until their succession problems are resolved. 

5. The game, then, is just beginning–as it is with Iran. Ultimately, it is in the world’s best interest to subvert North Korea’s isolation. Direct talks–indeed, diplomatic recognition–is not a concession. It is the removal of an excuse the North Korean’s have been using for non-cooperation. 

So let’s not kid ourselves: the military option is off the table, unless North Korea starts firing those missiles at someone. The sanctions option is also of limited utility because the Chinese are afraid that if North Korea is squeezed too hard, hundreds of thousands of refugees will stream across the border into their country. That leaves diplomacy–and seduction. There is a chance that if we make the North Koreans dependent on our food, fuel and consumer goods, we will have more leverage over them. But that is only a chance and the Kim family has shown a remarkable willing to allow its people to suffer and starve. There are no good options here–some are vaguely plausible and others are disastrous.