Now we’re hearing that North Korea’s Kim Jong Il regrets he conducted a nuclear test. That’s like Tony Soprano dropping by your shop with his hand out, and saying he is — oops — sorry he just test-fired a bullet past your head.
This is a shakedown, in which Kim has just succeeded in notching up his negotiating position to include a radioactive new bargaining chip. The idea is that if we now do what he wants, he won’t conduct any more nuclear tests… at least not until the next time he decides he wants to. And what have we got? The U.S. and its allies are now waving around a limited and leaky UN resolution for sanctions on North Korea, which China might sort of somewhat sometimes maybe enforce as it chooses — or not. And we now appear to be heading for more of those six-way talks, where nations such as the U.S. and Japan are by their nature constrained to honor their agreements, while any promises Pyongyang might make will mean no more than they have before — which is to say, they will be worthless.
North Korea’s regime has used this kind of brinksmanship for years to boost its importance in the world, strengthen its grip at home, and create a situation in which the Free World endlessly seeks to engage Pyongyang at the bargaining table. Over the past decade, this has meant the U.S. and others offering round after round of concessions, which Kim then incorporates into his own intricate maneuvers, both foreign and domestic, to stay in power. Along with pouring the foundations for two turn-key nuclear reactors for Kim, sending free fuel, free food, and in 2000 dispatching Madeleine Albright to cozy up to Kim in Pyongyang, these concessions have included the morally bankrupt and politically blind policy of dismissing as a side-show such abominations as the North Korean gulag, and the famine under Kim’s repressive policies in which during the late 1990s an estimated one to two million North Koreans died. For an excellent history and analysis of Pyongyang’s tactics, see the book “Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy,” by Chuck Downs. Writing in 1999, the era in which talks with North Korea were “Four Party” instead of “six-way,” Downs details how North Korea’s regime, which uses a mix of shocking acts and bad-faith negotiations to wring concessions meant “exclusively to ensure its survival, extend its power, and enhance its control.”
It’s worked so far. And, you can bet on it, Iran’s Ahmadinejad and his comrades are taking copious notes.