The Neocons and North Korea

The Dear Leader Plays Bluff Poker

by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis


North Korea’s "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il has long supported the desperately poor nation he inherited from his father by playing a game in which he truly excels, Pyongyang Bluff Poker.

Kim long ago learned that frightening his neighbors and the United States with nuclear weapons and truculent behavior was the best way to get food and cash aid from the rich nations. Though North Korea’s nuclear program was clearly designed for self-defense and thwarting an American attack, both the Clinton and Bush Administrations rose to bait and treated with the isolated Marxist state as if it was an existential threat to the United States.

As his economic woes mounted, Kim figured that staging a nuclear test would shake even more money out of the imperialist devils.

However, Kim’s tiny nuclear explosion four months ago backfired badly. Japan, the leading potential target for North Korea’s potentially nuclear-armed medium range missiles, went absolutely ballistic. PM Shinzo Abe’s new conservative government began openly talking about dropping Japan’s traditional military and strategic timidity and adopting a far more muscular stance. This would include the ability to strike at North Korea with missiles and strike aircraft, beefing up military forces, and erecting a multi-layer anti-missile shield.

China, which lost 10 million people fighting Japan’s invasion of the 1930’s and 40’s, and never tires of beating the war drums over alleged reborn Japanese militarism, also got seriously angry at the Dear Leader for provoking the Japanese.

Beijing fears Japan will one day use its huge economic strength to restore itself to a major military power that would challenge China’s growing might. China is concerned North Korea’s saber rattling might induce Japan to produce its own nuclear weapons — which it could do within three months. Some years ago, this writer obtained a copy of a diagram for a Japanese nuclear device.

Beijing reacted with unprecedented anger and criticism to North Korea’s nuclear test, openly calling it reckless and dangerous. China is North Korea’s only ally, sole source of oil, and supplies much of its food. Soon after Kim’s nuclear test, Beijing started squeezing North Korea by cutting back deliveries of oil and foodstuffs.

The inevitable ensued. North Korea was forced back to the negotiating table. Secret direct North Korean-US talks in Germany in January reached a tentative deal. Last week, the US, South Korea, Russia, and Japan initialed a nuclear deal with North Korea in Beijing that is a significant diplomatic accomplishment, but one that must also be taken with an excess of caution.

North Korea is notorious for backing away from deals, and, claims the US, has violated numerous previous ones. The latest agreement, trumpeted by the Bush Administration as a great diplomatic victory, was really due to China’s intervention. Whether it holds up and advances, or Kim is just buying more time, remains to be seen.

This column has long predicted that North Korea would eventually be bribed to junk its nuclear program. The US was not prepared to go to war against North Korea which, unlike Iraq, could fight back. Bombing North Korea was not an option since South Korea’s capitol, Seoul, is within range of North Korean artillery and missile batteries dug in to the DMZ. So payoffs were the only logical recourse.

The latest deal mostly mirrors the one offered North Korea by the Clinton Administration in 1994 and denounced by Republicans as a "sell-out." The Clinton deal was scuppered by neocons in the Bush Administration who accused North Korea of secretly developing a Pakistani-supplied uranium enrichment program. The neocons’ primary concern was not US national security but the fear that North Korea might sell nuclear warheads and delivery systems to Israel’s Arab foes.

This time, however, North Korea will not get a light water power reactor promised under the Carter deal, but $400 million worth of oil. In return, North Korea agrees to seal its Yongbyon reactor.

But under the Beijing Accord, North Korea will still retain its nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The secret uranium enrichment operation the US claims North Korea has hidden away remains unresolved. This and many other contentious issues were left open for future discussions. They promise to be extremely difficult. At least the Bush Administration wisely opted to deal with North Korea in a step-by-step process of rewarding Pyongyang in well-defined stages for each concession it makes.

American neoconservatives are furious at President George Bush for what they claim is pandering to "axis of evil" North Korea in order to achieve a desperately needed foreign policy success after so many gross failures.

What really worries them, of course, is that direct talks with North Korea raise the obvious question: why not direct talks with Iran over its so far peaceful nuclear program? The neocons want war with Iran, not talks, so the example of North Korea is undermining their carefully developed strategy.

Meanwhile, back in North Korea, Dear Leader Kim must be figuring out his next poker hand. He could always play his favorite hand. Which is to make a deal after torturous negotiations, agree to terms, then break the deal. Then later resume talks, using the final terms agreed to in the first negotiations as the starting point for achieving even better terms in the new talks.