North Korean Missile Tests
Everybody has no doubt heard that North Korea has test-fired at least seven missiles, including its Taepodong-2, which is said to have sufficient range to hit the west coast of the United States. What I am getting tired of hearing is that the tests were done because its Stalinist dictator, Kim Jong Il, "just wants attention." No less than fifty times have I heard people say this, as if Kim desires nothing more than to get his face on television by lobbing missiles at the Sea of Japan.
This caricature is dangerous and is a very incomplete portrait of North Korea's intentions and rationale. If the DPRK merely "wanted attention," Kim would have made another claim of having nuclear weapons. There is something more at play here, and it has to do with selling missiles illicitly. North Korea has earned a reputation to be a one-stop missile shop, "Missiles R Us," and my inclination is that he's using these test-fires as a twisted sort of 'diplomatic code' that they're ready to sell off a new bunch of Scuds, Nodongs, and short-range missiles.
Unfortunately for North Korea, the spectacular failure of the Taepodong-2, which reportedly konked out within a minute of being launched, will probably hurt his arms sales somewhat. But the Scuds worked fine, and that will likely result in him netting a couple hundred million dollars that he can turn over to his generals for more R&D. There's probably also a job opening at the head of the T-2 program; Stalinists tend to punish failure severely.
The diplomatic consquences of the missile tests will result in a slap on the wrist from the UN, unilateral sanctions by Japan, and potentially a kick-start to a new round of six-party (US, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia) negotiations to disarm the DPRK and give it some security gurantees and economic assistance. The UN may produce a resolution that condemns the action, but there won't be multilateral sanctions because of China, which will use the threat of the veto to protect any severe inducements against its client state. Japan doesn't like it when the Korean lob missiles into the Sea of Japan, and given that we've been through all of this before, they're going to slap more stringent sanctions than they did back in 1998. The six-party talks, which have stalled since the DPRK decided to back out of agreements made last September, may get going again but may prove as futile as they have in the past.
The United States will, of course, be involved heavily in what happens next. When an 'axis of evil' state goes out of its way to justify the label, Washington tends to respond. Whatever the criticisms of the Bush Administration's weak policy on North Korea, this type of provocation will result in some form of action. They have to walk a difficult balance here; they can't be too far ahead of the other four parties working to disarm North Korea, or the chessboard will be shaped as the United States v. North Korea. That's not in the American interest, but neither is tepidness because China does not want to be too harsh. A Clinton official on CNN yesterday said that the United States should have preempted these missile tests by lobbing a few of its own missiles into North Korea to take out the missile silos. Maybe he didn't get the memo from Kim Jong Il that said he'd respond to any preemptive strike with nuclear weapons, and momentarily forgot that such action would be a de facto and de jure act of war. Moderation is important in this latest diplomatic crisis, and starting a war--which would escalate rapidly if Kim's statements are to be taken at face value--is more than a little counterproductive in such circumstances. And they say that the Bush Admin. are a bunch of warmongers; this is a Clinton guy saying that the use of force is the way to go!
Now, I'm all for getting rid of Kim Jong Il and his little dynasty, but that is something which is going to happen organically. It's nonsensical to risk a nuclear war to accomplish a goal which will ultimately realize itself. Kim has bankrupted the DPRK, and his only claim to 'legitimacy' is his nuclear arsenal. Remove that from the equation, and there's not a whole lot left. I don't see the current regime enduring beyond the current Dear Leader, and the collapse of the state is a very likely event. The goal for the United States thus is to disarm--finally, completely, and verifiably--North Korea and move along such that the conditions for the regime's collapse become inevitable.