TOKYO – When a North Korean dove clutching an olive branch suddenly appears, the world should challenge it to reveal its hidden talons. This is only prudent because Kim Jong-il’s recent soothing words to America’s special envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, have been heard before.
Indeed, what Kim is now offering is not peace, but a “peace offensive” – a tactic used by the North repeatedly since the armistice of 1953 in order to sow division whenever the regime’s adversaries demonstrate unity and resolve. So, while South Korea’s government is right to engage in bilateral discussions with the North (as it has just agreed to do), President Lee Myung-bak is also right to bring to those discussions his traditional keen-eyed scrutiny of the North’s behavior and motivations.
Kim’s less-than-innocent intentions are demonstrated by his regime’s secret construction of a massive uranium-enrichment facility, containing more than 2,000 centrifuges, revealed to Stanford University’s Siegfried Hecker, a former director of America’s Los Alamos National Laboratory. The existence of the facility seems as clear a declaration as possible that the regime is committed to achieving the capacity to intimidate its neighbors with its nuclear arsenal.
Some believe that North Korea has begun displaying its growing nuclear threat in order to secure the succession to power of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s rotund, twenty-something youngest son. But, given how long this facility must have been under construction, this cannot possibly be the sole, or even the main, motivation.
The “Dear Leader’s” key objective is most likely to secure his own position, given the North’s dire economic condition. For it now seems that the only way for Kim Jong-il to defend his family dynasty against any domestic challenge is to make a show of force as a nuclear power.
The challenges facing Kim are piling up. Deification of the leader, once the foundation of the regime, is disintegrating. Economic failure, chronic food shortages, mounting public distrust of and animosity toward Kim’s government, and an apparent reluctance within elements of the North Korean military to go to war all point to the regime’s increasing fragility.
There are also signs of growing adoration of liberal countries such as the US and South Korea throughout North Korean society – a sentiment that the regime has sought to appease by broadcasting one or two Western films on state television.
More ominously, crime is on the rise and a breakdown in state-controlled health care is fueling the spread of various types of infectious disease. Kim’s hope must be that, by showing off his nuclear arsenal, he can bully the US, Japan, and South Korea into helping him to resolve some of his regime’s domestic crises.
Most immediately, Kim’s aim is to pressure Barack Obama’s administration into weakening the US-led sanctions against North Korea, having evidently decided that his dynasty has no future so long as the sanctions remain in place. To drive the point home, his regime has been refusing to attend multilateral talks.
Here Kim has shown just how fundamentally flawed his understanding of the workings of Western democracy is. He apparently believed that, following the defeat that Obama absorbed in the mid-term elections, the US would lack the will to stand up to a fresh nuclear threat and would move to conclude a peace accord with his regime, thus perpetuating his dynasty. “We are ready for both dialogue and war,” Kim has declared.
But, of course, just the opposite is true: the victory of conservative Republicans in Congress has left Obama with even less room to offer carrots to the North. Moreover, nuclear brinkmanship is a particularly poor tactic, since Kim’s behavior is now becoming fused in American minds with arguably the most serious strategic threat on the US agenda: Iran’s push to secure nuclear weapons of its own. Indeed, there is considerable talk among Western security services that the recently disclosed centrifuges were not actually assembled in the Nyeongbyeon facility, implying that Kim’s regime is hiding another facility.
The question then becomes, who helped Kim build these facilities? Who transferred the technology that the North needed?
Although there is mounting circumstantial evidence of cooperative exchanges between North Korea and Iran, no conclusive proof has been found. It has been reported that more than 200 North Koreans are currently working surreptitiously in Iran. If these include personnel from Room 99, Kim’s secret nuclear directorate, and Room 39, the bureau that controls his slush fund of hard currencies, more attention is needed.
Of course, the inner workings of Kim’s regime are shrouded in mystery, not only to the outside world, but also to most of North Korea’s government. The only way to increase transparency from outside is to shine a light on North Korea’s external activities, which means exposing as many connections and links between North Korea and Iran as can be found.
Nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Iran is no doubt assisting both countries to flaunt international norms – and now it appears that Burma has joined this axis of illicit nuclear proliferation.
One country could help the world gain the transparency – and the leverage – that it needs: China, over whose territory Iran and North Korea must be conducting their nuclear relations. Assuming that China does not approve of this unholy alliance, it has a responsibility to call a halt to these exchanges. Vague expressions of concern, such as those offered by President Hu Jintao during his Washington summit, will not do the job.
Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former Minister of Defense and National Security Adviser, is Chairman of the Executive Council of the Liberal Democratic Party.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.