President Barack Obama's new administration confronts a complex tangle in East Asia -- a tangle exacerbated by interlinked economies, economic decline and a paranoid tyrant working an extortion racket. Sorting through the tangle will require very smart diplomacy -- diplomacy that includes pursuing Bush administration initiatives and accepting the utility of missile defense.
The tangle's thorniest clump remains North Korea, that starving, Stalinist and heavily armed hereditary tyranny run by Kim Jong-Il, the paranoid tyrant and racketeer.
Kim presides over a criminal state and an economic disaster. Exporting missile technology to thugocracies like Iran earns Kim some hard cash. Rumors circulate that North Korean embassies occasionally sell heroin in order to pay their bills. Counterfeiting U.S. currency is another source of income that keeps Kim in caviar.
North Korea's major export, however, is the threat of war magnified by potential nuclear holocaust. It's an international version of an alley bully's extortion game. Pay me off, the punk waving the pistol says, or I'll burn down your store. The analogy, however, only goes so far. North Korea's Kim waves a nuclear weapon, and if he uses it, he kills himself.
Linked economies in a global recession already vex the Obama administration. The destruction of productive global hubs like Tokyo and Seoul would produce a depression. One of the largest employers in the Texas county I call home is headquartered in Seoul. An attack on Seoul is thus an attack on the Texas economy. Kim's extortion gambit targets this economic, political and technological linkage.
The Bush administration put in place a long-term diplomatic "python" strategy designed to squeeze the nuke from Kim while avoiding thermonuclear immolation and economic havoc. The "six nation" forum, consisting of the United States, Japan, Russia, China, and South and North Korea, has produced mixed results.
The North Koreans did destroy part of a key nuclear facility. The December 2008 six-nation meeting, however, broke up when North Korea refused to sign a nuclear verification protocol -- an act interpreted by many as a decision by Kim to wait and see if the Obama administration would drop this essential requirement. The Bush administration always backed its carrots with the implicit stick of military reprisal.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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