North Korea’s Gamble

Stephen DeAngelis

October 9, 2006

The news that North Korea tested a nuclear device despite warnings from leaders around the globe says much more about Kim Jong Il’s ego than about the country in general. The question on every media commentator’s lips this morning is: What are the world’s leaders going to do about it? They might as well ask: What can they do about it? To date, no one has seriously discussed military action against North Korea — such an attack could prove disastrous for South Korea since most of the North’s weapons are pointed in that direction and no one doubts Kim would respond. Sanctions rarely prove successful because they punish innocent populations for the sins of their leaders. This would certainly be true in the case of North Korea. Kim has shown no interest in the health of his country’s citizens, only in the health of his power. He has permitted millions of his countrymen to die while he lives in luxury.

Reporting about global reaction to North Korea’s announcement, Anthony Faiola, Glenn Kessler, and Dafna Linzer of the Washington Post wrote:

The announcement brought a hailstorm of swift international denunciations and touched off a chain reaction of security jitters that caused the Japanese yen to fall to seven-month lows and sent the South Korean currency and stock market plunging. South Korean officials said they detected a significant man-made explosion in the barren northeast of the peninsula, substantiating the Pyongyang government’s claim as the world’s eighth proven nuclear power. Chinese and South Korean authorities immediately condemned the test. North Korea “has ignored the widespread opposition of the international community and conducted a nuclear test brazenly on October 9,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its Web site. “The Chinese government is firmly opposed to this.” [“North Korea Claims Nuclear Test,” 9 Oct 2006]

Why Kim Jong Il tested the bomb is no secret — ego. He wants to sit as a peer at the tables of the famous and powerful. He has viewed nuclear weapons as his ticket into that club for a long time. He was probably encouraged by the fact that Israel, India, and Pakistan have suffered no long term consequences as a result of their nuclear programs (nor has he seen any long-term benefit accruing to South Africa and Brazil for giving up their programs). In his ego-centric world, the benefits certainly seem to outweigh the risks.

Today’s test appeared linked to the ninth anniversary of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s appointment as head of the Korean Workers’ Party. And it came just one day before South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon will face a vote on his bid to become the next secretary general of the United Nations.

Prior to the test, North Korea said they would delay it if the United States would conduct bilateral talks. President Bush has insisted on holding six-party talks — a blow to Kim’s ego. Feeding Kim’s ego has never proven to be a good thing.

Russia demanded that North Korea immediately resume six-party talks on its nuclear program and return to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Pyongyang had defied the “unanimous will” of the international community and that Russia would take its demands to the U.N. Security Council.

The United States, according to the article is poised to do more than talk.

U.S. intelligence sources said the Bush administration is talking about immediate naval action around North Korea. “This won’t exactly be a blockade, which is an act of war. But we could stop and inspect all ships in and out of North Korea,” one senior U.S. government official said.

The reason some analysts believe some kind of action will likely result is that “no nation that has successfully conducted a nuclear test has ever been persuaded to give up the weapons through diplomacy, sanctions or other means.” The way ahead is unclear. Kim and his cronies will hold on to power until their last breath — and that may be what it takes. If North Korea can be isolated until its regime tumbles under the weight of its own incompetence, then unification with the South can take place and a more responsible unified government would likely follow the paths taken by South Africa and Brazil. Unfortunately, that means incredible suffering for the people of the North over the coming years. Kim’s actions point out the stark difference between a brittle and a resilient strategy. His strategy for staying in power makes his country brittle and it can’t survive in the long-term.