Is Kim Jong Il seeking a showdown with the U.S. president who told the world he personally "loathes" the North Korean ruler?
Does Kim intend to force Bush into a humiliating retreat from the vaunted Bush Doctrine of "pre-emptive strike," as Khrushchev was forced to publicly retreat in the Cuban missile crisis?
What other explanation is there for Kim's brinkmanship?
In recent weeks, North Korea removed UN cameras and broke the seals on its nuclear reactor, ordered UN inspectors out of the country, and renounced the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Now, satellite photos reveal that North Korean trucks may be transferring spent fuel rods from the Yongbyon reactor to a nearby reprocessing plant. There, the plutonium can be extracted for nuclear weapons.
Within "weeks and months," says Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency, North Korea may be producing atom bombs. Nor has Kim tried to hide what he is up to.
He has thrown up an in-your-face challenge to the president who, in last year's State of the Union, declared to the world, "The United States ... will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
Remarkable. Iraq denies it has weapons of mass destruction. UN inspectors cannot find any. Yet, Iraq faces invasion. But North Korea brazenly fires up a plant to produce fuel for atom bombs, as President Bush offers repeated assurances he has no plans to attack.
This cannot continue. For if North Korea has decided to build a nuclear arsenal, not only is the Bush Doctrine dead on the Korean peninsula, the balance of power in Asia is imperiled. For if America does nothing, while Pyongyang goes nuclear -- despite the president's vow he would not permit it -- U.S. credibility, on which all our Asian alliances hinge, will be gravely eroded.
George Bush's America will have been faced down by a tyrant.
As of today, no one knows whether North Korea has perfected an atom bomb it can deliver on target. Kim has never conducted a test. But if North Korea turns out enough fissile material for half a dozen bombs, and Bush does nothing, the option of a U.S. pre-emptive strike vanishes. Put bluntly: If that Yongbyon reprocessing plant is not shut down by Kim, or destroyed by U.S. air power by April, U.S. credibility will be shredded in Asia.
But what is Kim after? Does he want war with America?
This seems improbable. Though North Korea -- with its 11,000 artillery tubes on the DMZ, its hundreds of missiles and a handful of atomic bombs -- could kills scores of thousands of Koreans, Japanese and Americans, Kim cannot win a second Korean War. Yet, such a war would bring the destruction of his country and the end of his regime.
The more likely answer is that Kim seeks several goals, all of them attainable. The first is security from attack. The second is to force Bush to accord North Korea recognition and respect. The third is a renewal of fuel and aid to keep North Korea alive.
Kim is not a madman. He has seen how, when Red China went nuclear, U.S. threats ceased, Nixon came to pay his respects and Beijing was handed China's seat in the UN, while Taiwan was expelled. America then abrogated its defense treaty with Taipei and shifted its embassy to Beijing. U.S. investment poured into China, and America escorted Beijing into the World Trade Organization and now permits China to run a trade surplus at our expense of $100 billion a year.
Even George Bush kowtows. When a Chinese MIG crashed into a U.S. surveillance plane in international airspace, Bush and Secretary Colin Powell repeatedly expressed sorrow for the death of the crazed Chinese pilot, and paid to have our plane crated up and shipped home. Kim wants the kind of deal the Chinese got.
Now, with the world watching, he is demanding that the Americans negotiate directly with him, as he moves closer to producing weapons-grade plutonium.
President Bush has very few options. He can bomb the Yongbyon reprocessing plant and risk war. He can seek UN sanctions, which Kim says would be a declaration of war. He can refuse to negotiate, as Kim defies his ultimatums and acquires enough fissile material for a dozen bombs.
The president and Powell have apparently decided that the way to win this showdown is to smash Iraq to show Kim what happens to regimes that defy the United States. But even before Baghdad is occupied, Kim may have enough plutonium for half a dozen atom bombs. What do we do if he then says, "OK, come and get 'em."
By the way, who was it that put all that bellicose Axis-of-Evil rhetoric in the president's speeches in the first place?