North Korea's nuclear test puts onus on China, S. Korea
October 10, 2006
Over the past decade, North Korea's erratic leader Kim Jong Il has learned two things. First, his nuclear program is what makes the outside world pay attention to him. And second, even when the United States and others threaten punishment and sanctions, he can count on old comrade China and reunification-minded South Korea to bail him out.
But North Korea's declaration that it has conducted an underground nuclear test - becoming only the eighth country to do so - crosses a red line and provides an opening to break the pattern. China and, to a lesser extent, South Korea hold the key.
The initial world responses, on Monday, were encouraging. China joined the global condemnation, calling North Korea's test "brazen." Meanwhile, South Korea canceled an aid shipment.
Public denunciations, however, are unlikely to have much effect on Kim. The real test is whether North Korea's neighbors are willing to cut off Kim's life support system. China provides more than 70% of North Korea's fuel and a third of its food imports.
Tough sanctions would be wrenching for China. Not only would it have to crack down on an ideological ally - not so long ago, both shared the same Maoist isolationism - but it also fears a flood of refugees if sanctions starve North Korea's population. It's nervous, too, about North and South Korea reuniting as East and West Germany did, bringing a capitalist democracy to its borders, which is exactly what the United States seeks.
Presumably, Kim is fully aware that the international community has few levers it can use effectively unless China stops behaving like an indulgent parent. But his defiance of Beijing might prompt China to see its (and the world's) longer-term interest: Without effective action against North Korea, the region will become dangerously destabilized. Japan, South Korea and others in Asia and beyond will feel compelled to build their own nuclear weapons. China, at odds with Japan for centuries, does not want that.
Cutting Kim's lifeline, at least temporarily, might sound draconian. Many of North Korea's 23 million people could starve. But the masses are already starving. Some reportedly subsist on tree bark. Food aid and goods, as in other totalitarian regimes, tend to go to the elite, including Kim.
To be effective, sanctions would have to reach the top tier. They would have to include a crackdown on Kim's own reported business empire, known as Division 39, that provides him with luxuries and includes several billion dollars in such places as Macau and Switzerland. But painful sanctions can't be the whole picture. They have to be accompanied by the kind of skillful and forceful diplomacy - from China, the United States and others with a key stake - that makes clear to Kim the two roads available to his nation: isolation and pain if it continues its reckless nuclear program, and rewards and security assurances if it renounces it.
There is time for this.
North Korea's nuclear weapons are not yet developed or sophisticated enough to put on a missile, and military pre-emption isn't a viable strategy. Any attack aimed at destroying Kim's weapons would likely unleash North Korea's million-man army, poised just miles from the South Korean capital and the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed nearby.
There are no magical solutions to the North Korean nuclear crisis. Successive U.S. administrations have failed to curb Kim's nuclear ambitions, and
President Bush's policy of refusing to accept a nuclear North Korea appears hollow. But if China steps up to the responsibilities befitting the global power it aspires to be, the beginnings of a solution might emerge - and the pattern that has enabled Kim's tyranny might finally be broken.