‘I loathe Kim Jong Il,’ President George W. Bush famously said, provoking a firestorm of hysterical criticism from the hard left. How could he be so crude, crass, and undiplomatic, they wondered? Did he not realize that if only he were nice to Kim, if only he would ‘engage’ him, then Kim would undoubtedly cease nuclear experimentation and development, quit selling missiles to rogue states around the world, halt his vast narcotics export machine, close down his operation that counterfeits US $100 bills, open the gates on his concentration camps, stop poison gas experiments on human beings, clean up the corruption inherent in his regime, and make certain that the tons of food aid North Korea receives actually got to the millions of his subjects who are starving to death? That Bush sure is dumb not to get it.
On the other hand two successive South Korean administrations and the Clinton administration ‘got it’ and look what a mess resulted. Appeasement was the watchword for Clinton, Kim Dae Jung and now Roh Moo Hyun. Despite all the publicized assistance such as light water nuclear power generating reactor construction, millions of barrels of fuel oil, uncounted tons of food and medical assistance, and foreign money, the North Koreans continued to cheat on their nuclear program. Further, there is ample evidence that during the Kim Dae Jung administration official policy was that massive bribery be used to feign bringing North Korea to the negotiating table and permitting the establishment of the euphemistically named ‘economic zones’ that were merely a subterfuge for South Korean companies like Hyundai to exploit slave labor.
The only visible result is that Kim Jong Il’s brutal, failing state was propped up for ten more years during which period perhaps three million or more North Koreans starved to death, uncounted thousands were brutalized in prison camps, and many were subject to poison gas and biological experimentation. And, most tellingly, umbridled appeasement afforded North Korea had ample time to develop nuclear weapons about which both the South Koreans and the Clinton people managed to deceive themselves. It is too late to redo history but it is not too late to learn sufficient lessons from it to stop North Korea.
Listening to commentators it is clear that many have already resigned themselves to the fact of a North Korean test. David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post even finds a ‘perverse benefit’ to the situation. It would, he says, ‘force…China and South Korea…to end their denial and face reality.’ That may be too steep a price to pay for an act that may precipitate a nuclear arms race within the East Asia region. As I made clear in my book Separated at Birth: How North Korea became the Evil Twin, it is only by the greatest restraint that Japan has up till now resisted what must be overwhelming pressure to defend itself against Kim Jong Il’s threats by open possession of a nuclear weapon. Once Japan declares itself nuclear then the cat is out of the bag and Taiwan and South Korea would eventually follow suit. Such a move is in no one’s best interest, especially China, for reuniting with Taiwan would be postponed decades at least.
When this hypothesis came out last fall it was met in some circles by stunned disbelief. A Japanese-American businesswoman told me with firm conviction that ‘Japan could never possess a nuclear weapon. After all we were the only country that has ever endured such as thing.’ Given continuation of the stability present in the Northeast Asia region concerning nuclear weapons even during the height of the Cold War, it is easy to agree with her premise. But something has changed dramatically since the early 1990s: North Korea has moved firmly, irrevocably, and without deviation toward acquisition of a nuclear weapon. That is something that Japan cannot ignore.
Indeed, the Kim Jong Il regime now arrogantly boasts of possessing at least one device and implies that it has more. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristhof cynically entitled a recent column ‘North Korea 6: Bush 0’ and implied that Bush’s policy of demanding transparency and accountability from North Korea is responsible for Kim’s nuclear development. This skewed hypothesis, echoed by North Korea sympathizers like former Ambassador Donald Gregg, adroitly dismisses the fact that the Clinton administration was preparing a military strike against North Korea to thwart its nuclear program. Further, they ignore – how can it not be intentional? – the six years after the 1994 Agreed Framework when Kim assiduously pursued nuclear development, well before the accession of George W. Bush to the presidency in January 2001.
But the test in regard to Kim Jong Il’s nuclear program was never did he actually test a weapon. The real test always has been how will the other players in the region react to such an event? Or, even more subtly, how might they react to the threat of such a nuclear test on the part of North Korea? For as every military analyst from Tokyo, to Beijing, to Moscow, to London, to Washington will affirm, it is easy to claim membership in the nuclear club and quite another to demonstrate such capability by actually conducting a test. This is the stage of the drama that Kim Jong Il has dragged the world to, and what we are all watching.
Will it actually come to a test? James Lilley, author of China Hands and only man to have served as ambassador to both Seoul and Beijing tells an interesting story. He was drinking with some older Peoples Liberation Army generals in China, Lilley recounts, when the subject of North Korea and its nuclear program came up. ‘They said that up to the point of an actual test they would stay out of it,’ Lilley said. ‘But if it came to a test then they would have to “take action”.’ Just what these tough Chinese generals meant we can only speculate upon, but we may soon get a chance to see if Kim persists.
It may well be that what we shall see, if anything, will be a continuation of Chinese actions against North Korea, warnings of a sort that could not be ignored by anyone other than a man totally possessed of the cult of personality that he imposes upon his oppressed citizens. For we may already have seen two instances of Chinese action: the April 2004 train explosion in Ryongchon that narrowly missed Kim while he returned from Bejing, and the August 2004 mysterious ‘mushroom cloud’ explosion in northwestern North Korea that some think may have been a Chinese Silkworm cruise missile triggering explosions in Kim’s solid fuel missile facility.
Regardless, Kim Jong Il is bringing the regional powers, including America, closer to the point where more words become meaningless and action becomes necessary. And implicit in that action will be removal of Kim and his brutal regime forever.