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North Korea's Latest Con By: Nicholas Eberstadt
AEI | Wednesday, January 14, 2004

How many times can someone sell the same dead puppy to the same dupes? North Korea's Kim Jong Il is currently conducting an international experiment to determine the answer to this question. The merchandise the Dear Leader is hawking isn't really a dog that won't hunt, of course--it's another phony nuclear deal. And the credulous buyers aren't simpletons at a county fair--they're top Western and Asian statesmen. Given the high stakes in this sting and the sophistication of the intended victims, you'd think the game would have been shut down before now. But you'd be wrong. The latest hapless steps toward another session of "six-party talks" in the North Korean nuclear drama, in fact, suggest that diplomats are assuming their familiar positions for another round of atomic bait-and-switch.

For the moment, the primary obstacle to Pyongyang's receiving more international donations in exchange for false promises to dismantle its nuclear weapons program is U.S. President George W. Bush, who has stated that he will not be blackmailed. Last week, however, Pyongyang executed a deft end-run around Bush. North Korea's play was to invite an unofficial delegation of Americans (including former State Department official Charles Pritchard and Stanford University Professor John W. Lewis) for an inspection tour of the Death Star itself, the Yongbyon nuclear complex. As the would-be dealmakers settled into their hotel rooms, North Korea's news agency pitched a "bold concession" for ending the nuclear impasse: in return for an end to Washington's economic sanctions and a resumption of free supplies of energy from the U.S. and its allies, Pyongyang would "refrain from [the] testing and production of nuclear weapons and even stop operating [its] nuclear power industry."

A little background illustrates the hollowness of this promise. The dynastic enterprise known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.) has been open for business since 1948, and for most of that time it's been building, and gaming, its nuclear program. Long ago, Kim & Co. figured out a formula for extracting protection money from abroad in return for promising to scrap the nukes: make a deal, break the deal, then demand a new deal for more, issuing threats until you get what you want. So far, it's worked pretty well. Pyongyang got the previous President Bush to remove all U.S. nukes from South Korea to grease the 1991 North-South deal for the "denuclearization" of the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang was caught cheating on that understanding--so it threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire," and landed an improved deal from the Clinton Administration (the 1994 Agreed Framework, with free oil and free nuclear reactors in exchange for a freeze on D.P.R.K. nuclear sites). When Kim & Co. seemed to be cheating on the Agreed Framework in 1999, Washington paid 500,000 tons in food aid to inspect a single suspect nuclear site. (In the course of those negotiations, North Korea warned about a possible "pre-emptive strike" on the U.S. if the talks failed.)

In October 2002, North Korea was once again caught cheating on its nuclear freeze arrangements--this time, with its secret, highly enriched uranium program. So what did Pyongyang do? Naturally, it upped the ante. It kicked out all the inspectors called for under the Agreed Framework and tore up its copy of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Kim started saying the D.P.R.K. possessed nuclear weapons and that it might be time to test, or sell, one. And it began asking for a lot more foreign cash to keep things quiet in the neighborhood. Under last week's proposal, North Korea would get not only a resumption of goodies bargained for in the Agreed Framework but also new money from the World Bank and others ("ending sanctions" is code for Washington's unlocking the door to multilateral aid).

It looks as if Pyongyang's shakedown artists have judged their international market correctly. Western and Asian diplomats are whipping out their calculators to figure the new price for postponing a North Korean nuclear breakout. Last week, Beijing lauded North Korea's "further willingness" to "stop nuclear activities"; in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell hailed the offer as "a positive step" that "will allow us to move more rapidly toward the six-party framework talks." Lost in this feel-good chorus was any apparent recollection of the original objective of talks with the North: namely, to hold Pyongyang to its earlier promises to scrap its nuclear program completely and forever.

As North Korea's neighbors prepare to be fleeced, one may wonder: What keeps this con going? It's not that American and Asian leaderships are invincibly ignorant. They've just bought into a variant of La Grande Illusion (as such thinking was called in France in the late 1930s). The notion that the Kim regime has absolutely no intention of ever giving up its nuclear capability--at any price, for any reason--is too terrible to face. Better to play pretend, even if this means being bilked in return for fake "breakthroughs" and bogus "accords."

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute.

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