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The only power that could do something about N. Korea probably won't

Monday, June 1, 2009   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

Bennington, VT — North Korea’s aggressive military testing and increasingly bellicose rhetoric confront the East Asia with a clear and present danger to peace and security. Never mind that the nuclear armed North remains economically fragile, diplomatically isolated and internally unstable. This remains all the more reason for concern for her neighbors, especially South Korea and Japan, and naturally the United States who remains treaty bound to protect both Seoul and Tokyo.

The latest chapter of the evolving crisis with North Korea came when the neo-Stalinist state tested another nuclear weapon and then for good measure fired off a barrage of medium-range missiles, precisely the type of rocket which could hit South Korea or Japan. World reaction was predictable; shock, outrage and a verbal slap from the UN Security Council.

John Bolton, former U.S Ambassador to the United Nations told Fox News that the jarring events which coincided with Memorial Day, were the “3AM call for the Obama Administration,” alluding to last year’s campaign challenge that the new administration would be “tested by crisis.” President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched rhetorical salvos on North Korea which sounded more like George W. Bush than from Kumbaya Democrats.

So what is to be done? Now that communist North Korea has formally renewed its membership in the “Axis of Evil”, will the rhetorically “tough, robust and firm” set of economic sanctions change the behavior of the quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? Or will the DPRK continue to develop nuclear weapons and hone the technical missile capacity to deliver them to Japan?

Let’s look at the record. Tub-thumping threats from Kim Jong-il’s regime are nothing new. Yet the DPRK is politically far more isolated than even twenty years ago when it could rely on its political comrades in People’s China and the Soviet Union. Still Pyongyang’s threat to pullout of the 1953 Armistice agreement which ended the Korean War, (recall there was NEVER a formal peace treaty), allows the defiant North an excuse to respond militarily to any “provocation” from either South Korea or the USA. UN sanctions which permit search or North Korean ships carrying proscribed cargos could trigger a response. Under the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty, the United States remains militarily bound to defend South Korea; American forces are on heightened alert.

North Korea remains a moribund Marxist state with a collapsed economy, severe food shortages, and a weak infrastructure. This is a country getting massive humanitarian assistance while at the same time threatening the global order. Yet given the North’s poor capacity for sustained military operations to “liberate” South Korea, Pyongyang is prone to use political bluster and the threat of a knockout nuclear punch.

Led by the reclusive and increasingly frail “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il (66), the DPRK has all the trappings of a communist state, but with the bizarre political cult of personality through which Kim rules. The DPRK dictatorship is a blend of totalitarianism combined with traditional Korean shamanism and ample doses of Stalinist terror. Political succession to the ailing Kim Jong-il is in the wind, and points to a short list from his family, but could just as likely come from the powerful military where many generals are bridling under his rigid but reckless rule.

While all of North Korea’s neighbors have serious concerns over this nuclear loose cannon on the deck of the DPRK ship of state, Japan probably has the most to fear and thus Tokyo’s diplomacy remains laser-focused on non-proliferation and sanctions. Moreover Lee Myung-bak’s government in Seoul holds no illusions over the forces arrayed just forty miles from South Korea’s prosperous capital.

When the North Koreans first tested a nuclear device in 2006, curiously coinciding with the very day Ban Ki-moon a South Korean diplomat was elected UN Secretary General, the Security Council slapped Pyongyang with a tough resolution #1718. Naturally the North has continued its proliferation and provocations. While the world community, including both Russia and Mainland China remain increasingly nervous over the North’s actions, how do you stop them short of military action?

The Six Party Talks which comprise both South and North Korea as well as neighboring China, Japan, Russia and the USA provide a negotiating framework for non-proliferation. The multinational diplomatic formula favored during the Bush Administration, and still is an option for Obama, have nonetheless produced painfully little progress.

Pyongyang calculates it can get away with it.

Russian statements on the nuclear test underscore its unease over the growing danger from this one-time client state.

The People’s Republic of China thus holds the key. Beijing realizes that the DPRK’s rogue regime is highly destabilizing regionally and bad for business throughout East Asia. Combine that with internal instability which could send refugees streaming north into Kirin and Liaoning provinces, is something PRC policy planners fear. If Beijing wanted to make the difference they could; China supplies half of DPRK’s food and 90 percent of oil supplies. The PRC could pull the plug on Pyongyang. But it won’t likely do so.

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