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
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
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