Linda Chavez
As dictators go, they don't get much worse -- or weirder -- than North Korea's Kim Jong-il. The man who insists on being referred to as "Dear Leader" apparently considers roast donkey a delectable delicacy but has so impoverished his nation that many North Koreans are reduced to eating grass to fill their empty bellies. An estimated 1,000,000 people died from starvation in the 1990s, while their Dear Leader and his father, Kim Il-Sung, who ruled before him, refused food aid from other countries so that they could maintain the illusion that they presided over a socialist paradise. For a while it seemed Dear Leader was interested in improving his image, if not his nation's desperate situation. After a dangerous confrontation with the United States in 1994 over diverting nuclear material from a power plant to bomb-building, Kim Jong-il began courting world leaders. That year, he seduced two American presidents, former president Jimmy Carter and then-president Bill Clinton by signing an agreement, negotiated by Carter, in which Dear Leader promised to abandon his efforts to build nuclear bombs. In return, Bill Clinton offered that the United States would provide economic aid and help build two light-water nuclear power plants in North Korea, whose spent fuel could not be diverted for bombs. Now that agreement has been shredded. Though Dear Leader himself has been notably silent, his spokesmen announced in December that North Korea was re-starting its nuclear weapons program and immediately ejected from the country all international monitors who might be able to keep tabs on what was happening. Dear Leader is showing the world he cannot be bought or bullied. And so far, the Bush administration is choosing largely to ignore him. Although the 1994 joint agreement provided that the United States could take action if North Korea abrogated the ban on pursuing a nuclear weapons program, the administration has announced it will not pursue a military option -- at least for the time being. Certainly North Korea's renewed belligerence comes at a terribly inconvenient time for the United States as we prepare for a probable war with Iraq. Nonetheless, Kim Jong-il will, no doubt, interpret the administration's approach as fainthearted. Dear Leader is nothing if not delusional and probably revels in the thought that he can stand up to "U.S. imperialist war hawks." All of which adds up to a very dangerous situation for the United States. While Secretary of State Colin Powell blitzed the talk shows this past weekend assuring everyone that the North Korean situation is "not a crisis," it could become one imminently. Powell said that since -- by our best estimate -- North Korea already possesses two nuclear weapons, the United States is not going to be any more intimidated if North Korea goes "from two weapons to five weapons." We shouldn't be intimidated, but we should recognize that the difference is a critical one. With only one or two nuclear weapons in his arsenal, Kim is highly unlikely to be willing to sell one, no matter how high the offer. They are his insurance policy against "regime change" from outside and his chief blackmail against South Korea. But every additional bomb he builds makes it likelier that he'll convert one or more into much-needed cash. And there is no scarcity of potential buyers. North Korea has already been peddling its missiles to some pretty unsavory characters, most recently buyers in Yemen. With U.S. troops preparing for war in the region, North Korean-built Scud missiles were recently intercepted on their way to Yemen. In that incident, the U.S. State Department bungled the effort to seize the weapons before they reached their destination. Acting on incomplete and inaccurate information, the State Department made the call to allow the weapons to go on their way after a Spanish special forces team intercepted the flagless vessel carrying them. Kim Jong-il may be crazy, but he has also shown himself adept at sometimes making his powerful adversaries look like his favorite culinary delight: jackasses.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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