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On October 9, 2006, North Korea’s official news agency announced the country's first nuclear test. At lunch time, as I sat in a Seoul Burger King about to bite into my chicken sandwich,  I received a text message from a friend telling me it had happened. I knew I had a limited amount of time before friends and family in the United States started waking up to the news.

On October 9, 2006, North Korea’s official news agency announced the country's first nuclear test. At lunch time, as I sat in a Seoul Burger King about to bite into my chicken sandwich,  I received a text message from a friend telling me it had happened. I knew I had a limited amount of time before friends and family in the United States started waking up to the news.

The standard line I give my family and friends back home about the North Korean situation has always been to, first and foremost, not take the news too seriously.  The 24-hour news channels are trying to make money. They make money by getting viewers. They get viewers by presenting the scariest possible interpretation of events going on a hemisphere away.

The nuclear test is a serious development, but before I get into what it is, I think we should go over what it isn’t:

By all accounts North Korea does not have the capacity to mount a warhead on a rocket, the jury is still out on their ability to get anywhere close to the United States. While the Taepo-dong II rocket does have long-range capabilities and is projected to be able to reach as far as Alaska, some say that it would only be able to make it that far full of fuel and no payload.

And, of course, all of this presupposes that the Taepo-dong II actually works. Let’s not forget that the June test was a huge failure.

Realistically speaking, the second biggest danger a nuclear North Korea poses, is the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons technology, as North Korea has been known to sell anything to anyone.

I hope this allays your fears of eminent nuclear apocalypse, because it’s a lot more complicated than that, and, unfortunately, the real situation is still pretty scary. So, here's what the latest developments really are:

Aside from being a major blow to the nuclear non-proliferation movement, this is quite an escalation in the political chess game that has been playing out on the Korean peninsula since the end of World War II. I’m not going to re-hash fifty years of history here, but I do think it’s important to take into consideration the much debated "Agreed Framework" that came about during the Clinton Administration.  

Slatehas a fantastic piece about Senator John McCain’s recent statements blaming the Clinton Administration for the developments, as well as a rough history of the agreed framework (the collapse of which has partly brought us to where we are today). There are lots of places you can go for a complete time line of the events. But, the facts important to me are these:

  • The Republicans  vehemently opposed the agreement.


  • Soon after the  agreement was reached, Republicans took control of Congress and  began to under-fund the programs initiated under the Agreed  Framework.

  • North Korea never  received what it was promised.
    From the beginning of its tenure the Bush Administration has attempted to ignore the problem of North Korea, and re-neg on the promises of the Agreed Framework while trying to make it look like it was all the fault of the North Koreans. Now, don’t get me wrong, North Korea was far from perfect in its behavior, but Bush’s response went beyond ‘holding them to account,’ as he is so fond of saying. What Bush did was to turn his back on them and walk away. Although the North certainly dragged its feet when it came to complying with the agreed framework, by failing to live up to what we said we would do, Republicans have dragged us down into the game Kim Jong Il has wanted all along.

    Ever since then, North Korea has been begging for attention. North Korea is still in dire straights. Whole families are still sentenced to spending their short lives in work camps where very few survive the lack of food, beatings, and rapes to atone for the sins of a single family member. Human flesh is sold on the markets as pork, children are starving and North Korean women are smuggled out of the country into China where they are promised a way to support their families by working as bar hostesses, only to find out that a life of forced prostitution awaits them (and if they ran back home, conservative North Korean society would shun them). The government pours all its money into the military and nuclear weapons for a very simple reason: survival. With very limited natural resources, the military threat is Kim Jong Il’s only bargaining chip.

    Yet, the only thing coming out of Seoul is ‘Sunshine,’ and China drags its feet whenever it comes time to put NK in its place. Here’s the big secret of the region: East Asia (with the possible exception of Japan) is scared to death of a North Korean collapse and will do anything to prop up the Kim Jong Il regime for as long as possible.  

    You won’t hear a peep out of those countries about NK’s human rights abuses (a step in the right direction came last friday), drug trafficking, or counterfeiting operations, which makes one wonder if their intentions are disingenuous. While the South Korean government professes an undying commitment to reuniting the peninsula, the fact is that South Korea has become globalized to its core, and one thing that globalization doesn’t like at all is political instability and war. Of course, it’s about more than just money. Kim Jong Il doesn’t need a nuclear capability to threaten South Korea: Seoul, one of the world’s largest cities and home to millions of Koreans, thousands of Americans, as well as many other nationalities, lies within range of North Korean artillery. Seoul could be devastated by North Korean artillery and, God forbid, chemical weapons, by the time the first American bombers are getting off the ground.

    Part of me wishes that the US would wash its hands of this whole mess and leave it to the regional players (I believe that six-way talks, rather than bilateral talks would be a step in this direction). Having the United States filling the crucial role as North Korea's sworn enemy seems to be a critical element of the regime's survival strategy, and this is why North Koreans are so bent on bilateral talks with the U.S., and the U.S., rightly, won't budge on this. In fact, of all the concessions North Korea is trying to negotiate from the U.S., I think this one is absolutely critical for how this is going to play out in the long-term.

    However, as I stated above, the major players in the region aren't able/willing to antagonize the North, for very understandable reasons. The United States seems to be the only one able to deal with the threat on its merits, as shown by the rather muffled regional response to North Korea's nuclear tests. Seoul even released a statement last week saying that it won't enforce new sanctions against the North. For this reason, I think the U.S. must open up diplomatically to the North, perhaps through the six-way talks.

    So far, Bush's cold shoulder towards North Korea has given Kim Jong Il 100% control of the rhetorical frame of the issue (at least in North Korea and somewhat in other areas of the region). More than that, Bush has entirely played into North Korea's hands by including North Korea in his 'Axis of Evil.' Last year I was asked by a Sociology Professor (who also happens to be a Special Rapporteur for the United Nations Sub-commission on Human rights) at the top University in Korea (Seoul National University), why Bush made that speech.

    Although it pained me to say it, I answered with full honesty that the speech had nothing to do with the realities of the North Korean nuclear program, and everything to do with trying to scare the American people into following him into battle. It worked. And while we were all (including Bush) preoccupied with everything going on in Iraq, North Korea was busy planning the current crisis.

    On September 12th 2001, the entire world was behind us. Bush had a historic opportunity to lead the whole world into a new era of International cooperation and peace. Now, five years later, world opinion of the United States is in the gutter. Why did Bush feel the need to say "You're either with us, or against us?" Why invent a new "Axis of Evil" to serve short-term political goals?

    Bush, the most effectively ideological President we have had in a long time, has single-handedly demolished all of the U.S.’s moral authority in the world by conducting statesmanship as though he was living in the world he wishes existed, rather than dealing with the actual realities of modern day international politics. Now we have an Iraq that is a terrorist training ground, and a nuclear North Korea. The world is a less safe place because of his pie-in-the-sky policies.

    In conclusion: The United States is a magnificent country. I believe in my heart that it should be a 'city on a hill' for the rest of the world to see what can happen when a country's people are dedicated to the ideals of democracy. However, for us to be such a shining example for the rest of the world, they have to love the example we set, rather than hate how our politics, economics, and even citizens, haphazardly traipse all over the world with an arrogance and ignorance that illustrates all of the worst parts of de Toqueville's Democracy in America. It seems as though the basic tenet of 'Being the better man,' would apply as fundamentally here as it does when dealing with a bully on the playground. But this sort of measured and realistic approach to politics just doesn't fit with Bush's cowboy-diplomacy that he has demonstrated domestically as well internationally.

    The world is getting smaller every day, thanks largely to the impact of capitalism, democracy, and the kind of innovation accelerated by the U.S. Industrial Revolution. It is about time that we woke up and realized that we are, in fact, global citizens, and our decisions, politics, and general way of life has impacts stretching well beyond our expanding waistlines.

    Originally posted to Sysiphus on Thu Nov 30, 2006 at 06:10 AM PST.

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    Comment Preferences

    •  disagree on six-party (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      kidneystones, Flywheel

      Great summary of the past problems, but I disagree with you on one point. The six-party talks are going nowhere and will continue to go nowhere as long as the US holds out on bilateral talks. Relying on the six-party cedes our negotiating strength to the Chinese and increases the PRC's regional diplomatic power.

      Other than the PRC, the DPRK is going it alone in Northeast Asia. Bilateral talks will give evidence to Kim that the US is committed to a peaceful resolution and lessen the pressure of isolation.

      insert witty quotation here

      by zenbowl on Thu Nov 30, 2006 at 06:36:31 AM PST

      •  Good points (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I appreciate your perspective on the 6-way talks. If bilateral talks happen, and the public perception of it swings the way you describe it, then I would be all for it.

        I'm not going to argue too forcefully on this point, because I think you very well could be right. Living in South Korea, I'm just very aware of public opinion towards (against?) the US/US citizens, so I'm pretty sensitive to developments in that area. Perhaps overly sensitive.

        It feels like I should say more, but I have a headache and need to sleep. Thanks for commenting!

    •  Not just our problem (0+ / 0-)

      This is a global issue. As such it needs a global solution. NK is desperate for our attention and thinks that by misbehaving it will get it. If we ignore (superficially) their antics, eventually they will stop, redirect toward other parties, or escalate. If they escalate, the world will resolve the problem once and for all.
      We, the US, cannot and should not shoulder the burden of putting every tinpot dictator in their places. It's a big planet, let the other kids carry their share of the load too.

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