North Korea is using annual military exercises as an excuse to “bolster up its war deterrent,” the latter term being the traditional code-talk for nuclear weapons. This ought to put North Korea’s rumored return to six-party talks in context. So should this Asia Times piece by our friend, the seasoned Korea reporter Don Kirk (buy his book!), who quotes Beijing University professor Wang Jisi. Wang, speaking at a conference in Seoul recently, showed a much better appreciation of reality than our State Department (which is admittedly setting the bar pretty low):
“The DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – North Korea] will keep going nuclear, period,” he told a small audience here this week. “There is no other endgame, at least from Pyongyang’s point of view.” That’s the kind of blunt declaration that United States and South Korean nuclear envoys do not seem capable of making or even thinking, to judge from their public utterances. [….]
“It is hard to imagine any genuine progress on denuclearization – even if North Korea-US contacts were upgraded or the six-party talks were to be resumed soon.” [Don Kirk, Asia Times]
If that’s so, then why is the Chinese government giving North Korea so much money to come back to six-party talks? So that it can refuse to disarm — and defy three U.N. Security Council resolutions that China voted for — for a larger audience? Of course not, silly:
Wang’s pessimism about North Korea giving up its nukes comes across as a sign of what Beijing sees as a higher priority, that is, propping up the North Korean regime against the danger of collapse and chaos. Wang got that point across too with a candor that’s not readily apparent in narrow official pronouncements from Beijing.
“Unlike other partners,” he said, in a jibe at the Americans and possibly the South Koreans, “Beijing would look at a possible political implosion in North Korea in most negative terms.” For that reason his government “would never try to destabilize that country or join others” in attempting “to do so”.
I wouldn’t necessarily call it pessimism. The unpleasant truth is that Beijing is covering for the non-disarmament of both North Korea and Iran … all the better to help keep Gulliver tied down. China isn’t helping to disarm North Korea because a tyrannical, oppressive, nuclear-armed North Korea serves China’s interests. To Beijing, it is far better to have death camps across the border than refugee camps along them, and if there is plenty of coal for the factories of Harbin and plenty of meat for the whorehouses of Dandong, so much the better. This is what Beijing means when it speaks of “friendship” with North Korea.
You don’t have to take it from China or even from Don Kirk that North Korea will never disarm. Just read the strategic thinking of the North Koreans themselves. To them, the six-party talks are just part of a scheme for the United States to gain a global nuclear monopoly and launch preemptive strikes against them, and American initiatives to improve relations with North Korea are really Trojan Horse tactics. Never mind that neither President Clinton nor any of his predecessors took advantage of that “monopoly,” even when North Korea’s nuclear intentions were apparent to anyone. It’s plausible that plenty of North Koreans really believe this.
Without nuclear weapons, North Korea is merely a fourth-rate power with a big, stunted, rusting, demoralized army that eats by stealing potatoes from off-post farmers. For more than a decade, Kim Jong Il has told the North Korean people that his acquisition of a nuclear arsenal justified the starvation of millions of their loved ones and allowed His Porcine Majesty to extort food from the imperialists. What would they think if their rulers then gave away those weapons for a few crumbs of aid, especially after the aid inevitably fails to do much to ameliorate their squalor? Even if you suspect, as I do, that this regime is now broadly reviled by its people, you still have to acknowledge the probability that the national pride those weapons imbue has great appeal to the downtrodden.
All of which is even more true of whichever ill-qualified successor tries — vainly, I suspect — to establish his own legitimacy after Kim Jong Il croaks (by 2013, according to hearsay quoting Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell).
If that is the case, one can only hope that this Administration will not relax that pressure to induce or reward North Korea’s return to six-party talks, only to balk, stall, and obfuscate some more. For the first time in years, the North Korean regime itself — as opposing to its long-suffering people — is under potentially fatal economic pressure. That pressure raises the only real leverage the United States has against Kim Jong Il and his court: the threat to fracture the system’s control and release the pressures within.
For once, time is on our side. Let’s not blow it now.