It needs the talents of Stanley Kubrick to do justice to the complete Cuckoo’s Nest that American policy on North Korea has become.
The State Department wants a nuclear deal, President Bush wants a North Korea peace legacy. And like the hellbent bomber pilot played by Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, undeterred by any last whisper of sanity, oblivious to the realities of the situation, and apparently beyond the reach of any recall code, Condi Rice just keeps barreling on, homing in on that bull’s-eye moment, yeeee-hah! — oh, criminy, that ended in mushroom clouds. Well, this could too.
Condi, of course, is on a mission not to bomb Kim Jong Il, but to befriend him — although the diplomatic lingo of the State Department leans toward such group-hug oxymorons as “We expect North Korea to cooperate with us … .” In a Wall Street Journal Op-ed, “Diplomacy is Working on North Korea,” Condi has just made the announcement (much-telegraphed, and much-delayed by Pyongyang’s complete disregard for a previously announced deadline of Dec. 31, 2007) that North Korea “will soon make a declaration of its nuclear programs, facilities and materials.” When that happens, presto! President Bush will lift wartime trade restrictions on North Korea, and notify Congress that in 45 days he will remove North Korea from the list of terrorist-sponsoring states.
For a cherry on top, we can also expect later this week the televised demolition of a cooling tower at North Korea’s aging Yongbyon reactor complex. (How much is Kim Jong Il charging the visiting media and dignitaries for tickets to this event? Will anyone tell us?) This is to be the choreographed Kodak moment, peddled by State as the diplomatic triumph of North Korea’s nuclear facilities crumbling without a shot fired.
Except, what we’re really about to get is a Potemkin party, a charade for the evening news. The aging Yongbyon complex is crumbling in any event. This hoopla over the cooling tower is North Korea’s latest diversion from its real and alarming weapons drama and proliferation networks behind the scenes — entwined as convenient during Kim Jong Il’s reign with Pakistan, Libya, Iran, Syria and who-knows-what-else. For years already, Kim Jong Il has been busy diversifying his nuclear projects, including a uranium enrichment program (when confronted over this by the U.S. in 2002, North Korea confirmed it; then later denied it — go figure), and such outrages as the clandestine copy-Yongbyon nuclear reactor built with North Korean collaboration in Syria (destroyed by an Israeli air strike last September, but still secretly under construction as recently as last summer, when Kim’s government was making a big show of shutting down the original Yongbyon in North Korea).
And Condi, in her zeal to push her North Korean deal, managed to write her entire diplomacy-is-working Op-ed on the subject without any explicit mention of the mind-bending report that on the paper records of Yongbyon’s activity, turned over recently to the U.S. by North Korea, American analysts found, according to the Washington Post, traces of highly enriched uranium. Talk about gilding the plutonium — there seems to be so much weapons-related radioactive material wafting around North Korea that the North Koreans themselves can’t keep track of it.
Rice, presumably with a straight face, elides right past this awkward feature of North Korea’s filing system to posit that “Because of our current policy, we now know more about North Korea’s uranium-enrichment efforts than before, and we are learning more still — much of it troubling.” Hmmm… and with North Korea’s record of nuclear extortion, lies, deceit, cheating on every deal and chronic withholding of highly relevant information, how are “we” learning… well, whatever it is we’re learning? Is that because American analysts found themselves licking highly enriched uranium off their fingers as they flipped through North Korean paperwork? (Not least, one has to wonder, is this safe for the researchers? Just to pursue a little thought experiment here — if, for instance, detainees at Guantanamo Bay were asked to flip through these same North Korean documents, wouldn’t we hear an international outcry over the inhumane risks of such exposure?)
Condi argues that in the wheeling and dealing to date, America has given up nothing of significance. Uh-huh. Nothing, that is, except the spectacle of the world’s superpower dignifying Kim Jong Il by stooping to appease him; sending him 134,000 tons of free fuel; welcoming his negotiators for bilateral talks in New York; shrugging off his missed deadlines; watering down the conditions for a satisfactory nuclear declaration; hushing up for more than seven months the information that North Korea even while promising to come clean had continued helping Syria build a secret nuclear reactor; dismissing as a back-burner consideration Kim’s domestic slave labor gulag, and totalitarian rule; and promising in exchange for the radioactive tokens described above that America will lead the way in welcoming Kim’s regime of the Juche idea to the tables (and banking systems?) of the civilized world.
Oh, and let’s not forget the cash for Kim. To satisfy Kim’s demands (in which Pyongyang immediately upped the ante after agreeing to the February, 2007 nuclear disarmament deal), the U.S. arranged the transfer to North Korea last year of some $25 million in allegedly crime-tainted funds frozen at Banco Delta Asia in Macau — a transfer in which, as State Department envoy Chris Hill became increasingly insistent that Kim Jong Il get the money, the U.S. enlisted the Federal Reserve to move the cash to Kim. This was striking, not least, because North Korea, according to the U.S. Treasury, has been counterfeiting U.S. currency for years. Kim Jong Il appears to understand the depth of this kow-tow he exacted from the U.S. — for all the world to see — in getting that money. Condi, Chris Hill and President Bush apparently remain clueless.
Condi concludes her op-ed by trying to cover the bases: “It may be the case that North Korea does not want to give up its nuclear weapons and programs. This is a real possibility. But we should test it… We believe that the six-party framework is the best way to learn more about the threat…,” etc. etc.
Test it? Secretary Rice thinks we should test whether Kim is really willing to be diplomatically inveigled out of his nuclear extortion and proliferation rackets. President Clinton, with Jimmy Carter as his muse, already tried that test — in that case as part of a four-way deal. Clinton threw into that pot a $5 billion plan under which an international consortium began building Kim two turnkey nuclear reactors, plus free fuel, plus a visit in 2000 from then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, wearing her best red dress. Kim cheated. Of course he cheated. Kim’s rule — and lavish lifestyle athwart his starving subjects — depends on maintaining his militarized state and nuclear extortion racket. If he loosened up enough to allow the serious beginnings of a normal economy and even moderately open society, there’s a good chance his own trampled and famished countrymen would seize the opening to hang him from the nearest Tower of the Juche Idea.
It’s not just North Korea’s behavior that’s at issue here. It is also U.S. policy that’s being put to the test, in the eyes of every would-be nuclear-weapons proliferator on the planet — starting with Iran. The lesson to date is that America, faced with nuclear blackmail, will bow down, dignify and fortify tyrants, fork over loot, and celebrate the process as a victory for diplomacy. Were North Korea to detonate a nuclear bomb over Los Angeles tomorrow, I start to wonder if Condi Rice and Chris Hill would describe the cataclysm as “troubling” and then re-cast it as a candid and informative addendum to North Korea’s promised declaration of its nuclear program.