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North Korea and the Audacity of Nuclear Extortion

If they gave prizes for the art of nuclear blackmail, North Korea's Kim Jong Il would right now be hoisting his trophy for lifetime achievement. Call it the Plutonium-Uranium-Switcheroo Shakedown Award.

For 16 years, Kim has ruled his totalitarian state with the help of treasure and concessions extorted from the U.S. and pals via periodic bouts of haggling over deals for North Korea to end its development of nuclear weapons. It's now almost two years since the six-party talks collapsed over North Korea's refusal to allow verification that it was abjuring nukes. North Korea went on to conduct a second nuclear test plus assorted missile tests; continued its sanctions-busting weapons traffic with Iran; and sank a South Korean warship. With all that under Kim's belt, it's about time for North Korea to mosey back to the bargaining table and cash in again on promises to desist -- as it did with the Agreed Framework nuclear freeze deal in 1994, as it did with the Six-Party Talks denuclearization deal in 2007. And now, having raked in the rewards of rogue production of plutonium, there's one more chip that Pyongyang can bring to the bargaining table. Lo and behold! North Korea has just unveiled a fancy and apparently new facility for enriching uranium.

As we've all learned while watching Iran install thousands of centrifuges for uranium enrichment, this is another way of making fuel for nuclear bombs. North Korea is offering the throwaway rationale that this is all about peaceful use of nuclear power. The official line is that the enriched uranium will be used to power a light water reactor -- now in the early stages of construction -- which will be used to produce electricity. Setting aside the issue of whether even "peaceful" electricity is something that in North Korea would be channeled chiefly toward the military, there is still the question of whether anyone except maybe the most gullible of diplomats is meant to believe this is all about electricity. The peaceful-nuclear-power label would perhaps be credible were North Korea to invite, say, John Bolton and the entire staff of the International Atomic Energy Agency, plus any bloggers, photographers and Tea Party types who can afford the airfare, to come roam freely throughout North Korea, and visit at will everything from the prison labor camps to the Yongbyon nuclear complex. Which is another way of saying that this might be credible as a strictly peaceful program had the Kim dynasty already collapsed.

But it hasn't. Instead, the aging Kim appears busy engineering a transition of power to his youngest son -- Kim Jong Eun. Perhaps the new uranium enrichment plant is the kind of gift that any modern nuclear-loving rogue despot might wish to bequeath to his son and heir?