The death of a vicious dictator is normally a cause for cheer. In the case of Kim Jong Il, however, there is little to be happy about. The state that he created, and that will now be ruled by his son and other family members, is built on three rotten pillars. First, the nation gets hard cash through illicit activity such as trade in narcotics, bribes from America and her allies to stop its provocations, and the sale of nuclear and ballistic know-how to anyone willing to buy. Second, it represses its people, forcing them to work and to rely on the Kim family for subsistence. And finally, it relies on its nuclear-weapons program as the ultimate guarantee of survival.
This is the house that Kim Jong Un has inherited. We will doubtless soon hear from Kim-family apologists that we ought to proceed with caution. Doves in the United States will tell us that the younger Kim is perhaps someone we can deal with, that we should wait until he consolidates his power and see if he is more reform-minded.
These arguments were used in different guises during the 17 years that Kim Jong Il was in power. The American people were told that a stable and confident Kim Jong Il could be persuaded to abandon his relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons. Whenever we had the regime on its heels — when the Bush administration began to apply real pressure on Kim during its first term, for example — we eased off in the hope that a deal was just around the corner. Conciliation and wishful thinking have gotten us nothing. Confident of North Korea’s status as a nuclear power, the Kim family has taken its provocations further in recent years. Most significantly, it murdered South Koreans in cold blood on two occasions in 2010.
We have been afraid of provoking Kim, and afraid of China’s reaction. Now it’s time to make them fear us. Rather than wait and watch events unfold, we should exert maximum pressure on the Kim family now. We should conduct military exercises around the peninsula, we should fly over their nuclear sites with stealth aircraft, and we should demonstrate that we can reach out and touch the regime anytime and anywhere. We should freeze the assets of the Kim family wherever they may be. We should shut down Kim’s criminal enterprises by stepping up our patrols of ships that leave the peninsula. We should give our allies in South Korea all the military capability necessary to defend themselves and strike back at the North should they once again be hit.
We should do all this before Beijing and Pyongyang have time to hatch a plan that solidifies the status quo. The status quo is dangerous, far more so than patiently and relentlessly working to bring down the Kim regime. For once, instead of waiting to see if a new dictator is “someone we can work with,” we should show the dictator what it will take to work with us. It should be clear that unless the Kim family gets rid of its nuclear weapons and its organs of repression and crime, we will work to remove it from power.