On Tuesday, North Korea announced it had stopped disabling its reactor at Yongbyon on August 14. Moreover, Pyongyang said it “will consider soon a step to restore the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon to their original state.” This reactor is the source of the renegade nation’s plutonium for its small arsenal of nuclear weapons. So will the North now rearm itself?
To do so would mean abandoning the series of agreements it has made at the Beijing-sponsored six-party talks. Today, the North Koreans are complaining that the Bush administration has not taken their country off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, something that Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill promised in those negotiations. The United States, on the other hand, argues that North Korea has failed to produce a “protocol of verification” of its disarmament promises. As Pyongyang said this week, “The U.S. is gravely mistaken if it thinks it can make a house search in the DPRK as it pleases just as it did in Iraq.”
The North Korean regime, of course, thrives on crisis, so it should come as no surprise that it has created another one this week by threatening to revive its production of fissile material. It is a surprise, however, that the Bush administration is letting Kim Jong Il do so. He is not in good health, he has yet to arrange the succession of power to his son, and his country is headed to another great famine. The North is, once again, playing a weak hand well.
How can Kim get away with his antics? There are many reasons, but most of them boil down to the Bush administration’s belief-one might call it faith-that large authoritarian states share our goals and will help us solve the problems of the world. In this case, the President somehow thinks General Secretary Hu Jintao will get rid of China’s only formal military ally-North Korea-to aid a nation that China wants to turf out of Asia-the United States. Beijing, however, has not been especially helpful since 2003, when the six-party talks began. The Bush administration, nonetheless, keeps trying.
Cynics and assorted other disbelievers have always assumed that Kim Jong Il would renege on his commitments because there is no set of conditions under which he would surrender his nukes. It is more precise to say, however, that the United States is not prepared to make the threats, offer the benefits, and engage in the coercive diplomacy that would be necessary to convince the Kimist regime to honor its promises. In short, the Bush administration is not willing to put the hard word on Beijing, Kim’s sponsor.
This month, in the Caucasus region, we have seen what happens when Dubya’s faith in large authoritarian states leads to disastrous consequences. Our North Korean policy, built on the same dubious assumption that big-power autocrats will assist us, can also end in tragedy.