November 1, 2006
Has Kim Jong-Il Backed Down?By J.R. Dunn
That would seem to be a fairly urgent question, despite the strange lack of concern among politicians and the media. China is receiving the lion's share of credit for 'persuading' North Korea to resume the Six Party negotiations it had abandoned earlier. Japan's tough unilateral sanctions and the ongoing threat of its acquisition of nuclear weapons are also mentioned, almost as an afterthought.
But it may well be that Kim has discovered that getting what he wanted (a nuclear test) is not getting him what he wants. You'd think the outcome of the first attempt at global nuclear blackmail would arouse more interest in the American press, but there's an election going on, and God forbid that anything distract from that, particularly if it might reflect any credit on the Bush administration. So the North Korean nuke crisis has as a result been transformed into page—three material, as if it were an embezzlement committed by a Democratic candidate.
Actual reports, as is so often the case with the Hermit Kingdom, are mixed and contradictory. Claims were made last week that Kim expressed 'regret' over the test to the Chinese, claims which were disavowed almost immediately. Reports that preparations for another test were taking place —— which, considering the strong doubts surrounding the original test, would very likely be on the agenda —— also turned out to be false. (These included mention of people 'playing volleyball' at the test site, which seems a little strange, but this is North Korea we're talking about.)
Murkiness ruled, as is often the case in that part of the world. But there was one odd development as the week went on — all the boasting and chest—beating, which was being heard from all quarters ranging from border guards to the regime's UN representative, suddenly ceased, cut off as if by the flip of a switch.
Then, at the beginning of this week, an actual vetted, official announcement appeared from the Chinese: Kim had told former Chinese foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan, acting as a special envoy, that Korea 'did not have the will to carry out a second test'.
This is an odd formulation, redolent of the kind of face—saving that runs through all levels of Eastern politics. 'Does not have the will' could mean 'can't', it could mean 'won't', it could mean 'better not', or any number of things. It would be a rash individual who tries to pin down a leader who has made a kind of international sport of making generations of analysts look foolish, bt I'll rush in.
I think Kim botched his play, and he knows it. His pompadour has wilted, his elevator shoes weigh heavy, his Hennessy has lost its savor. Like most dictators, Kim is a picture painter. He had a precise and detailed image in his head of how things would go when he unveiled his firecracker: respect, fear, obedience. Respect for North Korea, a state that has not enjoyed much of that style of treatment in its short history, fear of its ruler, who no doubt suffers some vague idea of how he is actually viewed by the world and would like to see that changed, and obedience from his neighbors, if not from other points beyond.
But it hasn't gone that way at all. Kim played his hole card, and everybody else at the table went for their guns. North Korea is now more isolated and more vulnerable than ever before.
The U.S. rallied its allies (so much for 'Iraq has cost us the respect of the world'), the UN acted with dispatch for once, and Japan refused to wilt. On October 26 South Korea, usually the weak link, agreed to enforce sanctions. Even the North's sole 'ally' China (like the British empire, China does not actually have such things as 'allies'), has shown an icy face. Kim is now confronting the unthinkable: his kingdom, far from being unbound, is boxed in even worse than before. Rather than being ignored, as it was during the four decades of his father's rule, it has become a target.
This should not have come as a surprise. Nuclear bombs are among those elements of life that work better as fantasy than reality. Apart from the original atomic raids, where it can be said they fulfilled their potential (although it was pure shock, not terror or destruction, that crumpled Japanese will), atomic weapons have been a disappointment as world—changing elements.
The U.S. atomic monopoly failed to lead to peace or hegemony or anything but a series of mounting crises from Trieste in 1946 through Greece, Turkey, Iran, Berlin, China, and finally culminating in open war on the Korean peninsula itself. ('The atomic bomb', Stalin famously stated at the time, 'Is a weapon to frighten schoolteachers.')
Similarly, the Soviet Union's acquisition of nukes did not guarantee the success of the proletarian revolution or even the continued existence of the USSR. When the collapse came at last, the Soviets had enough in the way of warheads — 40,000 or more, a much higher number than even the most florid Cold War hawks imagined —— to shift the earth from its very orbit. In the final analysis, they counted for nothing. The Soviet Union passed into well—earned extinction without a single plutonium atom giving off so much as a ping.
Israel's bombs act as a final existential guarantee of national survival, but nothing more. They have consistently failed to awe Fatah, Hamas, Hezbollah, or anyone else. Intifada has followed Intifada, atrocity followed atrocity, bombing followed bombing without the thought of nuclear retaliation so much as robbing a single terrorist of a moment's sleep.
What Kim is now facing is the realization that nuclear weapons don't solve problems, they complicate them. (Particularly considering the problematic nature of his 'bomb'. If it was, as appears likely, a fizzle yield, than he can't actually be said to have tested a bomb at all, a complication in and of itself.)
It is possible to use nuclear weapons as a counter in international relations. One example is the Soviet method of using them as a shield for activities such as subversion and proxy warfare, something that the U.S. and Israel never took advantage of. Whether Kim has the skill and ability, not the mention the patience, to bring this off remains to be seen.
For the moment, it can be said that Kim has effectively backed down. An action like this requires a follow—through, same flourish that puts the seal on the new order of affairs. A second test, an ultimatum, an openly hostile move along the lines of sinking a ship or knocking down an airplane. Nothing of the sort has occurred. Instead we see Kim frozen in place, a squat man with a funny haircut with one foot on the ice, listening to it start to crack without the slightest idea of what to do about it.
The lesson is clear: nuclear weapons are simply not a universal solvent for a nation's difficulties. Ayatollahs please take note.
J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor to American Thinker.