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“Words matter”, but they aren’t everything

May 27th, 2009 - 5:46 am

VOA reports that North Korea will take military action against South Korea if it cooperates with the US in attempting to inspect ships which may contain WMD materials.

North Korea says it will take military action against South Korea if it participates in a U.S.-led effort to intercept ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction, as tensions increase over Pyongyang’s nuclear test earlier this week. In a statement Wednesday, Pyongyang reaffirmed that it would consider Seoul’s decision an act of war and will no longer be bound by the 1953 armistice that ended the three-year Korean War. Seoul announced Tuesday it would participate in the Proliferation Security Initiative, which involves intelligence sharing and naval coordination to prevent nuclear and other illegal weapons from being transported. The announcement came one day after the North Korean nuclear test.

The UK Telegraph explained that until recently, South Korea had relegated itself to observer status the Proliferation Security Initiative, a Bush-era device for attempting to quarantine North Korea, in order to avoid provoking the North.

Until Tuesday, South Korea had retained an “observer status” in the PSI in an attempt not to provoke its Northern neighbour, whose government had said earlier this year that any decision to join would be considered an “act of war’”. The move by South Korea is largely symbolic, since it has made clear that existing shipping agreements and protocols with the North would not be affected by the move. However Pyongyang, which has test-fired six missiles since Monday’s nuclear test, has used the decision as a pretext to further ramp up tension on the Peninsular as it seeks to force concessions from the international community.

In a related development, UPI reports that “North Korea, continuing its aggressive nuclear posture, may have restarted its Yongbyon nuclear reprocessing facility, a source told Yonhap news agency.” Radio Free Liberty called North Korea’s actions a “challenge to the Obama doctrine”. The Examiner says, “Obama looks for an unclenched hand – gets the finger”. Radio Free Liberty explained why North Korea’s provocation in the face of Obama’s conciliation is so disturbing.

U.S. President Barack Obama came to office promising to explore ways to talk with countries hostile to the United States — such as North Korea and Iran — in what was regarded as a stark contrast to the Bush administration’s labeling them as parts of an “axis of evil.” He reiterated that approach just a week after taking office in January, pledging that “if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” But on May 25, North Korea appeared to give a stunning reply. It conducted its second nuclear test — its first during Obama’s term — and produced an explosion experts compare with those that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

The New York Times says of the Obama administration that  “as much as they understood this was going to be an issue, they weren’t ready for a nuclear test in May,’ Marcus Noland, an expert on North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said of Mr. Obama and his advisers. ‘They’re in a situation now where they have to contain and manage a crisis.’ … Of the options still on the table, the measures that the Obama administration seems most drawn to would constrain the North Korean government’s access to funds. These steps, which would be carried out by the Treasury Department either openly or covertly, would be directed at banks in Europe and the Middle East that are used by the Kim family, officials said.” Whether North Korea will respond to such pressures is open to question. A North Korean academic, writing in the Asia Times says that Obama may have accidentally insulted Kim Jong Il by calling into question his right to launch a long range missile across the Pacific Ocean and that it proved as “hostile” to Pyongyang as the George Bush. The academic Kim Myong Chol says that “Plan B” may now be in effect. Plan B is a Dr. Evil-like plan to threaten the world.

Plan B envisages the DPRK going it alone as a fully fledged nuclear weapon-armed state, with a military-first policy, and then growing into a mighty and prosperous country. It will put the policy of seeking reconciliation with a tricky US, a helpless superpower with a crippled economy that is losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the back burner. The DPRK is equipped with all types of nuclear warheads, atomic, neutron and hydrogen, and their means of delivery puts the whole of the USA within effective range.

The Times of London wrote on April 24, 2009: “The world’s intelligence agencies and defense experts are quietly acknowledging that North Korea has become a fully fledged nuclear power with the capacity to wipe out entire cities in Japan and South Korea.” The announced vow to quit six-party talks, restart nuclear facilities and conduct additional nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests is a clear message that the Kim Jong-il administration’s decision to shift to plan B is irretrievable.

Whether these blood-curdling emanations from North Korea are simply more posturing or the demented but serious actions of a dictator in poor health with nothing to lose remains to be seen. But it highlights the underlying problem in any attempt to contain North Korea. Behind any serious diplomacy there must always remain the threat of a credible use of force. North Korea has stormed forward, less timidly perhaps when facing Bush than Obama, but forging ahead all the same, because he calculated that America would not risk stopping him by military action. Dashiell Hammett captured the essence of the problem in his classic, The Maltese Falcon.

Spade: If you kill me, how are you gonna get the bird? And if I know you can’t afford to kill me, how are you gonna scare me into giving it to you?
Gutman: Well, sir, there are other means of persuasion besides killing and threatening to kill.
Spade: Yes, that’s, that’s true. But – they’re none of ‘em any good unless the threat of death is behind them – do you see what I mean? If you start something, I’ll make it a matter of your having to kill me or call it off.
Gutman: (chuckling) That’s an attitude, sir, that calls for the most delicate judgment on both sides. ‘Cause as you know, sir, in the heat of action, men are likely to forget where their best interests lie and that their emotions carry them away.
Spade: Then the trick from my angle is to make my play strong enough to tie you up, but not make you mad enough to bump me off against your better judgment.
Gutman: By gad, sir, you are a character.

The North Korean midget dictator simply believes that the sheriff won’t shoot. Kim Jong Il is a bad character; a police character but he is a character. The challenge facing the Obama doctrine isn’t directed against an idea: it is aimed squarely at what Kim thinks is the new President’s lack of it.

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