It seems Hillary Clinton broke an informal taboo Thursday by mentioning to reporters the possibility that Kim Jong Il, tyrant-supreme of North Korea, might not last forever. Gasp! Shock! Horror! — apparently, according to the New York Times, the usual experts agree that this kind of talk might discomfit the Chinese, or cause the North Korean government to lose face — and then who knows what they might do??!!
(Sell missiles to the Middle East? Test a nuclear bomb? Stockpile plutonium? Help the Syrians build a secret nuclear reactor? Test a ballistic missile? Threaten to drown South Korea in a sea of fire? Divert food aid to the military? Counterfeit U.S currency? Send hundreds of thousands of North Koreans to Kim’s gulag? Cheat on their deals, miss their deadlines and demand fresh nuclear payoffs? …Oh, wait, they’ve been doing all that already).
Actually, a lot less focus on satisfying the whims of Kim, and a lot more focus on benefits of life without him, is exactly what’s needed for North Korea — as I’ve argued in my column this week for Forbes.com, Try Real “Change” Toward North Korea.” North Korea’s nuclear rackets are a symptom of the core problem, which is Kim’s regime. Diplomatic engagement over most of the past 15 years has actually helped sustain the regime, with the result that the nuclear rackets have gotten much worse. Kim not only has plutonium, a suspected uranium enrichment program and proliferation networks that almost succeeded in producing an operational copy of North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor in Syria (shut down not through diplomacy, but by an Israeli air strike in 2007). He also has a basketball signed by Michael Jordan and hand-carried to him in 2000 in an act of tribute by America’s then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and an army that has supped for years off American-donated, North Korean-diverted food aid.
The only real answer — brace yourself, I am going to use a taboo phrase — is regime change.
So, congratulations to Hillary for her taboo-breaking mention of a possible succession in North Korea. Unfortunately, all other signs, including the rest of Hillary’s remarks — as she makes her maiden swing through Asia as Secretary of State — are that the Obama administration is about to “engage” the current North Korean regime with efforts to revive the Six-Party Talks. The logic there seems to be that if a policy has failed, and failed repeatedly, we need lots more of it.
To help with the next round of “engagement,” it looks like Clinton will tap Stephen Bosworth as the new special envoy for North Korea. Bosworth is a retread from Bill Clinton’s failed North Korea policy: Bosworth’s background includes a stint from 1995-1997 as executive director of the New York-headquartered KEDO consortium that was set up in the mid-1990s to building two sparkling new multi-billion dollar nuclear reactors for Kim Jong Il, with regular shipments of free food and fuel thrown in, in exchange for the promise of a nuclear freeze. (Kim cheated, and deal broke down in 2002, leaving North Korea with technicians already partly trained, and the foundations of the reactors already poured). Will we be seeing that project, and those reactors (yes, regardless of what Jimmy Carter told us, they could be used to produce nuclear bombs) rise from the grave?
Engagement certainly seems to be the diplomatic verb of the hour. The Obama administration has already begun “engaging” Syria, as I noted in a column last week on the waiving of Syria sanctions for airliner repair. This weekend Senator John Kerry plans to drop in on Damascus. And of course, when Obama takes a breather from spending the earnings of your great-great-grandchildren on bridges, high-speed trains to Vegas, and mortgage bailouts, we may yet witness those promised “no preconditions” talks with Iran.
A note — in surveying this gloomy scene while writing the column on North Korea, linked above, I went hunting on the web for Ronald Reagan’s famous 1984 slip with the open microphone — or was it a slip? — when he broke a taboo in talking about his desire for regime change in the Soviet Union. Shock! Horror! Wow, was he good. When do we get another like him? Remember: “We begin bombing in five minutes.”