Monday, October 09, 2006
Another Colossal White House Failure - North Koreans Test Nuclear Bomb
Add this one to President Bush's long list of foreign policy failures. North Korea's nuclear test is a product of the US's refusal to engage in bilateral talks with Pyongyang. The North Koreans know exactly what they are doing. Contrary to some descriptions of this regime circulating in the West, Kim Jong-Il is actually behaving quite rationally. The North Koreans realize that there is little anyone can do to them on the diplomatic or military fronts. Japanese indignation is of no consequence whatsoever. Indeed, it will only improve Pyongyang's standing among many ordinary Chinese and South Koreans. The only players with serious leverage are the South Koreans and the Chinese, who supply the isolated regime with food and energy. Neither one of them has any interest in a sudden North Korean collapse (imagine millions of refugees fleeing north and south) or a military confrontation (picture one third of Seoul wiped out by artillery). Of course, given the current crisis over Iran, the Bush administration cannot afford to look weak. For the US it's a lose-lose situation.
So why did the North Koreans test their bomb now? Precisely because they want to make it clear that Bush has misplayed all of America's cards. Kim Jong-Il wants to outlast this lame-duck president. If the Democrats return to power in 2008 or if the GOP candidate sees the light by then, Kim Jong-Il will be able to have his bilateral talks and prolong the existence of his regime for another half-decade.
Were it not for the current nuclear standoff with Iran, the North Korean test would be a lot less scary. Pyongyang is not motivated by millenarian ideology. The North Koreans are not religious fundamentalists, and they are not trying to extend their sphere of influence in the Far East. They are simply trying to get a lease on life. To lump them together with the Iranians was stupid and wrong. It would have been far more sensible to do everything possible to isolate these two fronts from each other in public discourse and in diplomacy. Now that the association has been firmly ingrained, the Iranians cannot but feel emboldened by the North Korean achievement. Bush concessions to the North Koreans will only spur Tehran on further. But are there any alternatives? To me, it looks like the US has no choice but to start bilateral talks with North Korea, while doing everything possible to make this look like the result of compromises and concessions by both Washington AND Pyongyan. But I fear such a diplomatic feat is far beyond the current administration.
Thanks to Jun for the great insights.