For decades, intelligence agencies have assured the world that Kim Jong Il, the dictator of North Korea, is a psychopathic lunatic with a massive collection of pornography and a habit of kidnapping people from Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea to serve his whims.
He has made decisions about where to spend his government's money in a time of government-made famine that has caused the deaths of at least 1 million of his countrymen and women. He has built giant skyscrapers that are so structurally unsound they cannot be inhabited.
Psychopathic monster he almost certainly is. Almost everyone who has spent time in North Korea reports that it is, without question, the most horrifying place on this planet - a world in which the totalitarian fantasy imagined by Madeline L'Engle in the great 1962 children's book "A Wrinkle in Time" has been made flesh and bone.
But a lunatic Kim is not. He is a master geopolitician. Though we don't yet know the terms of the tentative deal announced yesterday under which North Korea has supposedly agreed to end its nuclear program, chances are very good that once again Kim has forced the world's powers - including the United States - to pay him a massive bribe that will help him maintain his stranglehold on power.
Since 1985, North Korea has used its reputation for insanity to manipulate not only the United States, but even the Evil Empire to its West. In that year, the Soviet Union agreed to provide the North Koreans with light nuclear reactors if the Norks agreed to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Showing stunning sangfroid against the ruthless bunch in Moscow, Kim's father signed the treaty and then simply refused to abide by any of its provisions. He spent five years refusing to allow a single inspector into the country, and when he did finally allow their entry in 1990, he deceived them and lied to them.
And how did North Korea pay for its recalcitrance? It didn't. In 1991, the United States agreed to remove its short-range nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula in exchange for a promise from North Korea (and South Korea) not to do anything nuclear.
Our weapons were pulled. The South abided by its word. The North Koreans continued to develop their nuclear program regardless - until 1993, when Kim the Elder announced his nation was pulling out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Why? Because, in complete contravention of its deal with the Soviets in 1985 and its deal with us and South Korea in 1991, it had built a nuclear reaction in Yongbyon.
At this point the Clinton administration took over, and at the end of 1994 announced its bribe - the so-called "Agreed Framework." This time, there would be no reactor for peaceful purposes built by the Soviet Union. Instead, the United States would build two reactors! And provide fuel oil and food aid. All of this totaled a $4 billion payout to Kim Jong Il.
The deal was much celebrated, and remains so even now. But in 1998, Kim struck again. He fired an intercontinental missile - the sort that carries a nuclear payload - over Japan.
Bill Clinton, who had promised that "North Korea will freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program" in 1994, had egg on his face. Talking tough, his people demanded that North Korea admit inspectors to reveal just how far Kim had gotten with his nuclear ambitions.
Kim wouldn't agree unless he was paid off to the tune of $300 million. With tragically naive hopes of helping to stave off famine, the U.S. dispatched a huge food-aid package that did nothing to stem the death toll. For four years now, ever since the North Koreans confirmed that they had finally and at long last built nuclear weapons the world (and especially the U.S.) had been paying them not to build, the United States and four other nations have been involved in a diplomatic dance with Kim called the "six-party talks."
Those talks have now borne fruit, because it appears that the Bush administration has now gone down the same path as everybody else - paying Kim a bribe in exchange for promises of change. We'll hear a lot about how this deal will be enforced with great determination. But it probably won't be, because Kim has the whip hand. Everyone is sure he's crazy, and everyone is fearful he will start a regional war in Asia if he doesn't get his way.
Why on earth should Kim keep up his end of any bargain? He's running one of the most successful extortion rackets in the history of the world. Why would he give up now?
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