A huge explosion rocked North Korea and the world gasped and held its breath. Was this the nuclear test that everyone feared? Probably not, but our reaction is proof of our concern. There is general agreement that North Korea possesses sufficient quantities of enriched uranium to construct a bomb and is busily reprocessing plutonium in order to manufacture an even more powerful weapon. It certainly has more than enough radioactive material to supply a dirty bomb factory.
There was good and sufficient reason back in 2001 when George W. Bush consigned North Korea to charter membership in the Axis of Evil. It was a country ruled by a dictator with an iron hand who assassinated foreign leaders, kidnapped innocent people from other countries, blew civilian aircraft from the skies, starved more than a million of his own citizens and consigned hundreds of thousands to slave labor camps. Since then the situation, incredibly, has only grown worse.
We now know beyond doubt that Kim Jong Il and his late father Kim Il Sung violated the agreement they made with Clinton administration officials to cease research into nuclear weapons in return for billions in aid. The agreement, known as the Agreed Framework, was cobbled together in 1994 by former President Jimmy Carter. It was all carrot and no stick. Food, fuel, medicine and money all poured into North Korea. There was painfully little transparency in regard to food and medical supplies distribution, most of which went to the army or into the black market. There was total opacity on the nuclear side. While the U.S., Japan and South Korea dumped hundreds of millions into manufacture of light water reactors to alleviate North Korea’s power shortages, the North Koreans conducted feverish research into enriched uranium weapons.
Only a public disclosure in 2001 of what had been strongly suspected but previously suppressed brought the truth to light: North Korea had voraciously – and ungratefully – consumed all of the proffered aid while thumbing its nose at the U.S. and the international coalition. At this point the North in effect said, "Since you’ve caught us in the act we’ll just finish what we’re doing!" In return, the coalition halted LWR construction and food aid. Even China, North Korea’s last friend in the region, turned off the spigot on oil flow for several days to send a message of displeasure. None of these measures have brought a change in either attitude or behavior from the North.
The situation on that far off peninsula is rapidly approaching the boiling point. It is very complicated because each country involved – China, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Russia, and the United States – has a different set of needs and requirements and approaches the problem from a varying perspective. It is critical that if any progress is to be made the coalition must stay together as a unified front and yet North Korea, an expert in this kind of negotiation, has already driven wedge issues between some key players. North Korea, for its part, is now in a holding pattern. Before acting it prefers to wait and see who is elected American president in November.
The North Koreans already know that President Bush is going to maintain a hard line with them: he will demand nuclear disarmament, transparency in processes, cessation of sale of missile parts to rogue states, cessation of trafficking in narcotics and – it is hoped – immediate improvement in the human rights situation in North Korea. Conversely, North Korea expects that a John Kerry presidency would be in essence a return to the Clinton policies of live and let live. North Korea would expect bilateral talks that provide the opportunity for them to play one side off against the other and to negotiate very favorable deals. They expect that a threat of hostile action will convince Kerry to placate and appease rather than challenge and demand.
For these reasons the North Korean regime has openly supported the Kerry candidacy and runs pro-Kerry messages within North Korea and on its web sites. Bush, conversely, is portrayed as a monster and warmonger who oppresses their fellow Koreans in the South. In a recent BBC production entitled "Access to Evil," the news crew interviewed North Korean students whom when asked if they had a message for President Bush replied "stop killing the children of South Korea."
There is no easy solution to the North Korean problem. It might be possible for Kim Jong Il to take a stand similar to Libya, for example, but would be almost impossible for him to permit internal reform. His regime has instituted such strict control measures over its population that it is going to be difficult for Kim to ease back on controls without a popular uprising. This is the pressure cooker theory of dictatorship: the tighter the lid, the hotter the fire, the greater the explosion when pressure grows too great. Kim and his cohorts are limited by the extent of their repression to what actions they can take and remain in power.
Ultimately, regime change is going to be necessary in North Korea. Peacefully through the means of concerted international pressure if possible, through more stringent measures if necessary. For the moment Kim Jong Il has some breathing space to review his options and make his choices. Which course he selects will determine his fate and that of many others.