HOTSPOT: North Korea
Imagine the nerd in your elementary school class: Nobody liked him. Kids made fun of him. Nobody played with him. Now imagine the nerd with nuclear weapons. That's Kim Il Jong, the well-coiffed leader of North Korea who plays both Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde to the outside world, releasing two American journalists from captivity but also opening floodgates at a dam that killed six South Koreans downstream. Oh, and don't forget those nukes, which allows him to throw periodic tantrums that scare the wits out of countries in the region and the United States. As Kim sets about passing the throne to his son, Kim Jong Un, the world awaits clues to the enduring question: What will North Korea do first, join the world community of nations or blow it up?
By Joel S. Wit
After President Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech in 2002, I wrote an article describing North Korea as the "poster child" for rogue states.
The North's leaders, Kim Il Sung and now his son Kim Jong Il, have been skilled practitioners of power politics for over 50 years, whether fencing with fellow communist dictators like Stalin and Mao or conducting a marathon diplomatic arm wrestling match with every American President since Dwight Eisenhower.
To the casual observer, Kim Jong Il appears to be an unpredictable, well-coiffed, sunglass-wearing villain straight from a James Bond movie, a strongman parodied in the comedy hit "Team America" as gleefully lowering the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency into a tank of sharks.
Sadly for the U.S. and Kim's close neighbors, Japan and South Korea, he should not be taken so lightly.
As the leader of a small country of 24 million people, seemingly always on the verge of starvation, Kim and his father before him have spent billions of dollars over the past four decades to build conventional and now nuclear weapons as well as long-range missiles, to threaten Japan and South Korea, American forces based in those countries, and even the United States. Remember that in April, before the North conducted a rocket test, Washington moved more missile defenses to Hawaii as a precaution. Again this week, North Korea test-fired short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan.
This is no evil genius from a James Bond movie. Kim just may be an evil genius, period.
The Kim family's rule has lasted so long because son, like father, is calculating and pragmatic, a trait that has become especially obvious over the past year.
First, North Korea refused to return to multilateral talks intended to eliminate its nuclear arsenal after the Obama administration took office and then conducted its missile and nuclear tests. Now, the North has switched gears again and made peaceful overtures to Washington as well as South Korea and Japan.
All of these steps are part of a well-choreographed strategy that has emerged since 2002.
Until then, the Kims' nuclear program was a bargaining chip in a bigger geopolitical game to build better relations with Washington and to protect the North against its two big neighbors, China and Russia. After 2002, when ties deteriorated because the Bush administration wanted nothing to do with rogue states, the North set about building a nuclear arsenal to serve as its security blanket.
That security blanket has become even more important as Kim, who suffered a stroke last summer, prepares to hand over the reins of power to his son. But the pragmatic leader understands the dangers of uniting the international community against him and has alternated his moves on the political chessboard between developing a nuclear arsenal and making conciliatory gestures.
Lurking behind all this maneuvering is the ever-present possibility Kim could sell nuclear bombs, materials or know-how to another rogue state or terrorist groups and somehow that could lead to a nuclear detonation in an American city.
Already this decade, the world learned that the North was involved in the dangerous nuclear smuggling ring run by A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's atom bomb, and in helping Syria build a reactor that could produce bomb-making fissile material. That project was destroyed by Israelis warplanes
United Nations sanctions? They don't work. Sanctions enacted after the North's nuclear test in May include a limited right to intercept suspicious ships that might be carrying weapons or technology. What good is that? A nuclear bomb design could fit into the pages of an average size book or could easily be transmitted via the Internet. Swiss police recently found such a design--probably from Pakistan--on the computer of a member of the Khan smuggling ring and quickly destroyed it.
Many American experts argue that it is too late to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Maybe not. The Obama administration can still succeed if it appeals to Kim's pragmatic instincts. It must show him that Washington will never condone a nuclear North Korea but would be willing to forge a better political relationship and to address Kim's security concerns if he agreed to give up his weapons of mass destruction.
Even an evil genius might be tempted by that.
Joel S. Wit is a Visiting Fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Weatherhead Institute for East Asia, Columbia University. Wit is a former State Department official who served as Senior Advisor to Ambassador Robert L. Galluci, and was in charge of the U.S. government's effort to implement the 1994 U.S.--North Korea Agreed Framework.