Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Korea's Obama Test: Hiroshima sized Nuclear Weapons
North Korea's test of a second nuclear device Monday didn't surprise readers who saw John Bolton's recent prediction on these pages. But it does once again put in sharp relief the world's failure to counter dictator Kim Jong Il's challenge to global security. If history is any guide, Kim's strategy is to keep escalating until he extorts more money, aid and global recognition. This time in particular he's testing President Obama and his vow to "engage" the world's rogues. South Koreans react to news that Pyongyang tested another nuclear device. By early accounts, yesterday's underground test outside the northeastern city of Kilju was successful. If the initial reports of a 10 to 20 kiloton blast are true, then North Korea's scientists have come a long way since their first test in October 2006. That blast registered less than a kiloton and was widely considered a failure abroad, if not in the North, where Kim used it to bolster his prestige. In response to that test, the Bush Administration and China at first increased sanctions and diplomatic pressure. But they quickly turned to strike a deal offering Pyongyang aid and recognition in return for the North's promise to dismantle its nuclear programs. The North and the U.S. later made a public-relations show of blowing up the cooling towers at the Yongbyon reactor, but the deal foundered over the North's refusal to allow adequate inspections, turn over its plutonium or acknowledge its clandestine uranium program. President Bush nonetheless removed North Korea from the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring nations. Kim is returning to this playbook now that Mr. Obama is in the White House, and Kim can't be displeased with the reaction so far. After the North launched a long-range ballistic missile in April, Mr. Obama declared that "Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons. Now is the time for a strong international response." But the U.S. couldn't even get a Security Council resolution at the U.N. and had to settle for a nonbinding "presidential statement" of rebuke. After Pyongyang said it would put two American journalists on trial in June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there was an "open door" to talks. And when the North refused to return to the six-party nuclear talks, Presidential envoy Stephen Bosworth said the U.S. is "committed to dialogue." Monday's test brought more global tut-tutting, with the White House saying that "such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea's isolation." But Kim Jong Il can be forgiven for concluding that his multiple violations will sooner be rewarded than punished. We can already hear the response in world capitals that there is "no alternative" to this kind of policy accommodation. That's what senior Bush State Department officials like Philip Zelikow, Christopher Hill and Condoleezza Rice asserted to win over Mr. Bush. But a concerted effort to squeeze North Korea economically was making a difference before Mr. Bush pulled the plug in 2007. In 2005, the U.S. Treasury took action against a bank in Macau that did business with North Korea, and Japan cracked down on illegal businesses sending cash to the North. Those financial sanctions could be resumed, and if backed by energy sanctions from China would get the North's attention in a way that U.N. resolutions never will. The U.S. also has a reliable South Korean ally in President Lee Myung-bak, who has cut off aid to the North amid its recent provocations. The stakes here go beyond the ambitions of one nasty regime. North Korea has shown in the past it is willing to sell its missile and other technology around the world, not least to Iran and Syria. The mullahs in Tehran and other rogues are carefully watching the response of the new American President as they contemplate the costs of their own WMD ambitions. Mr. Obama won the White House while promising that his brand of kinder, gentler diplomacy would better rally the world against bad actors. Now would be a good time, and North Korea the right place, to prove it.