Politics & Policy

Pyongyang Knocking

The exasperating nuclear bomb issue.

The North Korean nuclear bomb issue is as exasperating as any post-Soviet dilemma the U.S. has ever faced. We don’t know whether Dear Leader Kim Jong Il actually has the several bombs alleged, but there is no alternative to assuming that he does have them, and we know that he has missiles nimble enough to fly right over Japan. Great-circle-wise, Alaska is cheek by jowl with that part of the world.

There is, then, no strategy at hand that doesn’t presuppose that a part of the United States could be attacked by North Korean bombs. But it is also clear that measured alongside the vulnerability of other targets, we are remote. From which it follows that North Korea’s neighbors are in closer range and reasonably have more to fear.

For obvious reasons, the nations involved simply assume that the United States is going to dictate policy, though China is critical, and it is in Peking that the six powers last convened. It is a responsibility of President Bush to address the nations on the borders and persuade them that it is they who have to devise policies to cope with Kim Jong Il, because they must contain their deadly dangerous neighbor. North Korea is 10,000 miles away from our heartland.

China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan are immediately affected by the rise of Pyongyang to nuclear status. It is they that need to set policy, and petition the world for relevant aid in implementing it.

Obviously the United States’ nuclear arsenal is available for punitive action, in the event Pyongyang were to launch a missile. But that is different from serving a deterrent purpose. If Dear Leader shoots off a missile, deterrence has ipso facto failed. An ensuing rainstorm of nuclear bombs made in the U.S.A. would bring devastation, but that is different from preemption, which is what the world hopes for.

We know now, from Libyan revelations, that uranium hexafluoride, which is the progenitor of the nuclear bomb, was sold by North Korea to Libya. We don’t know whom else the stuff was sold to, but do know that there are aspirant nuclear bomb producers between Libya and North Korea, including Syria, Iran, and even Egypt. It is alarming to reflect that the sale of the uranium has to mean that it was surplus to North Korea’s own needs, suggesting that its inventory might be larger than we have feared.

There isn’t any obvious way that a confederation of nations could simply estop traffic from North Korea to other parts of the world, and the politics of any attempt at such a quarantine would be difficult to devise (no ships from North Korea to unpleasant countries will henceforward be permitted?). Yet the neighboring powers need to come up with something, and the nearest anyone has come is Japan’s pending requirement that any ship entering its harbors be insured against oil spills, a measure pretty explicitly directed against North Korean shipping which is uninsured. China, of course, could impose definitive sanctions, stopping food shipments, oil, and opening its borders to North Korean emigration.

What the country’s leaders will need to gauge is the reaction of Kim to economic pressure. All that has been asked of him, so far, is that he abandon his nuclear development, pursuant to a formal commitment made by North Korea to the International Atomic Energy Agency. But the great question is whether incremental pressure will lead Pyongyang a) to the abandonment of the nuclear program, or b) to the use of its weaponry, never mind the retaliatory devastation brought on.

Kim’s southern border is a mere 40 miles from Seoul, a geophysical reality which has encouraged South Korea to a supplicant’s role in policies aimed at the North. So–that is a problem. But it is more immediately a problem for South Korea, and then for Japan and China and Russia, than for the United States.

We are advised that the personal hostility felt by Bush and Kim for each other argues for a diminished role by the United States in prospective policies (they are calling it the “tool kit”) aimed at Kim. The lesson to take from this, we are advised, is for Mr. Bush not to append his name to any official derogation of Dear Leader. That is a considerable sacrifice for the President, but one he’ll simply have to make–while turning to the Pacific powers and informing them that it is up to them to take the next step.


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