Fear not! It seems there is a secret plan to deal once and for all with the murderous totalitarians running the rogue regime of North Korea. The U.S. government, together with the United Nations, is going to bore them to death.
OK, just kidding. But as the sophisticates of the “international community” yak on about penalizing North Korea for the March 26th torpedoing and sinking of a South Korean war ship, the Cheonan, any sane person looking in on this scene might well wonder if this is all just some sort of tedious diplomatic spring ritual — long on diplo-talk, but short on any action that really matters. It’s now two months since North Korea with an unprovoked attack sank the Cheonan, drowning 46 members of the crew. Definitive evidence has been presented that a North Korean submarine committed this act of war. But if Kim Jong Il is tuning in to the remarks of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, what he heard her say on Monday, in response to a press question about whether the U.S. would support additional United Nations sanctions on North Korea, was: “We are obviously continuing to review and consult closely on these matters… .”
Hmm. Kim must be quaking in his elevator shoes.
Over at the UN, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has just interrupted his own la-la-land perorations about a world free of nuclear weapons to pronounce himself “confident” that in response to the sinking of the Cheonan, the Security Council will, with all its usual competence and integrity, take “measures appropriate to the gravity of the situation.” This would be the same Security Council which since 2006, with two sanctions resolutions against North Korea and three against Iran, has failed to stop either the North Korean or Iranian nuclear programs. For that matter, this is the same Ban Ki-Moon who prior to taking charge at the UN played a lively part as foreign minister of South Korea in the launch of that grand failure known as the Six-Party Talks — which dispensed all sorts of largesse to Kim, while spanning North Korea’s first nuclear test, in 2006, and serving as prelude to North Korea’s second nuclear test, in 2009.
Not that there’s been a complete lack of action in recent days. South Korea has announced it is cutting off all trade with North Korea — all trade, that is, except the trade that will not be halted, plus humanitarian aid (which has a long record of helping to sustain Kim Jong Il’s regime). Joshua Stanton on his One Free Korea blog has a good rundown of the loopholes.
The U.S. has promised “unequivocal” support for Seoul (whatever that means from an Obama administration that has been systematically courting America’s enemies and trashing America’s allies), and announced it will take part with South Korea, and maybe some other allies, in military maneuvers meant to better patrol North Korean adventures at sea.
The big problem overall is, why should Kim believe that any of these players are serious? What’s been going on for years between North Korea and the “international community” is a big game of chicken. Over and over, the international community — a.k.a. U.S. leadership, like it or not — has flinched (except China, which has had a merry old time selling out its erstwhile co-negotiators). President Bill Clinton in 1994 tried to buy off Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons projects with the Jimmy-Carter-inspired offer of free food, fuel and two nuclear reactors — and then looked the other way while Pyongyang cheated on the deal. President George W. Bush initially confronted Pyongyang over that cheating, but then retreated into the Six-Party Talks, ultimately bribing Kim Jong Il with aid, cash and the removal of North Korea from the U.S. list of terrorist-sponsoring states, as well as downplaying North Korea’s outrageous collaboration with Syria in building a secret nuclear reactor on the Euphrates (what ended that project was not the Six-Party Talks, but a courageous strike in Sept. 2007 by the Israeli Air Force).
When North Korea tested a ballistic missile in April, 2009, President Barack Obama responded that the world community must stand together against this sort of thing, and “Words must mean something.” Evidently his words did not mean enough to stop North Korea from conducting an illicit nuclear test the following month. In response to that, the U.S. led the way on a second sanctions resolution against North Korea at the UN, in which much was made of plans to interdict North Korean shipments of prohibited military goods. Since that resolution, there have been a mere five interdictions. Are we supposed to believe that these represent the sum total of North Korea’s weapons traffic? Or is it possible that enforcement of these sanctions has been lax enough to reassure Kim that he could sink a South Korean ship and get away with it?
North Korea’s bargaining pattern, for many years, has been to threaten and provoke, then come to the table and promise better behavior, rake in rewards, cheat, and do it all over again. What changes is that the cycles of this extortion racket are becoming more dangerous — as North Korea hones its own arsenal, and sets an example for other rogue regimes.
Amid all the official reviewing and consulting, the very least the Obama administration could do — immediately — is put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, from which Bush should never have removed it. Without the will to risk genuinely standing up to North Korea, or the nerve to follow through on steps that would help bring down the Pyongyang regime, re-listing it as a terror-sponsoring state may amount to little more than words. But at least they would be accurate — and if words must mean something, then however small, it would be a start.