North Korea's Atomic Full Monty

Last Tuesday’s announcement that North Korea has successfully reprocessed 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods into sufficient material to produce a plutonium-based bomb adds another dimension to the enriched uranium bomb Kim Jong-il’s regime had already manufactured.

Meanwhile, President Obama, in another case of seeing-the-world-not-as-it-is-but-as-I-wish-it-was diplomacy, continues to make statements such as "it is unacceptable for North Korea to be a nuclear power."

Mr. President, we’re past that point. They already are.

Analysts remain preoccupied over Kim’s desire for bilateral talks with the US as an excuse for continuing to develop nuclear weapons. While that is a desire it is not the regime’s primary goal.

Kim (or a stand-in, in that secretive country no one knows for certain) met with former President Bill Clinton months ago in the highly publicized negotiations for release of two female reporters. This opened the door for one-on-one talks, but subsequently the Obama foreign policy team has waffled, agreeing on bilateral talks only as a precursor for resumption of the fruitless Six Party talks that had been an unproductive staple of the Bush years.

If one thinks of the famous definition of insanity as repeating the same actions and anticipating different results, then the last decade of US-North Korea relations floats to the top of the list.

Since former President Jimmy Carter embarked on a self-appointed mission to Pyongyang in spring 1994 to negotiate the Agreed Framework, accepted post-visit as a fait accompli by the Clinton administration, the US and regional players have accepted what essentially is a bribery system to keep North Korea nuclear free.

Obviously it hasn’t worked. Despite years of false starts on nuclear power plants (the North, like other atomic wannabes, insisted that all it wanted was more electricity), food and medical aid, fuel oil, and cash payments nothing has dissuaded Kim from his atomic goals.

He adroitly played the other six party members – Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, and the US, pitting one interest against the other and testing the envelope frequently by launching missiles and atomic testing. On each occasion he was warned that no further development would be tolerated and that repercussions would result if he kept it up.

Carrots were offered, accepted, and still Kim persisted. With no negative results from his behavior, why ought anyone expect differently?

Unfortunately, with an indigestible domestic agenda, slipping popularity, and two active wars, we can only expect that North Korea will remain a footnote for US policy makers who are already over their heads in problems.

The real danger in North Korea is not so much a direct attack on Seoul, Tokyo, or the western US, although with improved missile development all those possibilities exist. By acting oblivious from international criticism, Kim sets the example for other leaders, like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, to flout sanctions and proceed apace with nuclear development.

One major difference between the two is that unlike Ahmedinejad, Kim does not seek the apocalypse.

He runs a hedonistic regime (North Korea is one of the world’s largest
importers of expensive French cognac, though its population starves) and is determined to remain in power at all costs.

Being sole leader means keeping both the population and his subordinates in line. Kim accomplishes this by brutally repressing the masses and lavishly rewarding his underlings. It is a tried and true formula for success in the North but requires steady inflow of cash to keep the lions fed before they turn on the handler.

With virtually zero legitimate economic base Kim uses a full spectrum of criminal activity to bring in scarce foreign currency. Counterfeiting currencies, pharmaceuticals, and cigarettes; trafficking in human beings; production and distribution of methamphetamines and heroin; money laundering; and, most importantly, sale of missile and WMD technology.

North Korea has worked tirelessly with the Iranian leadership to improve and enhance missile technology and nuclear weapons. North Korean scientists and engineers have close ties to the infamous AQ Khan network, have worked with Syrian and Libyan counterparts, and have a developing presence in Venezuela with the Chavez regime.

Export of these technologies to fellow rogue states is worrisome enough in itself, but even more troubling is the possibility that a cash-starved North Korea would sell a portable nuclear weapon to active terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.

Don’t think for a moment that Kim would hesitate if the price was right and the weapon available.

He sees this as a no-lose situation.

Assume the worse case: a terrorist-delivered nuclear weapon detonates inside the United States. In such a circumstance it is highly unlikely that US officials would be able to identify the source positively enough to authorize retaliation. One can imagine the chorus of nay-sayers insisting that "sufficient evidence" was not present to legitimize a reprisal.

Even if President Obama had a stated policy that any nuclear attack on our soil would automatically trigger destruction of Tehran, Pyongyang, or other city, no foreign leader who understood the convoluted American guilt psyche would take such a threat seriously. Knowing what you do, would you?

The ultimate result would be horrific: destruction of an American city with loss of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions over time.

Such is the price of indecision and of continuing down a comfortable diplomatic road simply because there seem to be higher priorities in the diplomatic in-basket.

Given the complexity of the North Korean issue and the procrastination on a relatively simple situation such as Afghanistan, we ought to expect to change.

Until it is too late for fixes.