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North Korea Poised to Exploit or Escalate Crisis

Andre Pachter / China Confidential | October 14 2006

North Korea could be poised to exploit the current crisis to tremendous advantage.

Confident of continued Chinese protection and Russian diplomatic support, the secretive Stalinist state is supposedly signaling a readiness to return to stalled six-party disarmament talks.

The North Korean signals follow hints from the United States that it could live with a nuclear North Korea for an interim period provided Pyongyang (a) does not put nuclear warheads on its missiles, and (b) abandons all arms proliferating activities.

(Note: Biological weapons are a major concern. North Korea reportedly has well-developed biological and chemical weapons programs. It is difficult to understand how the proposed sanctions package could prevent a desperately poor, cornered regime from trafficking or engaging in impossible-to-trace germ weapons and warfare.)

North Korean weakness is in some sense an asset; with little to lose and nowhere to run or hide, the regime would probably unleash its military might on South Korea—where thousands of U.S. troops are sitting ducks—and Japan before suffering defeat and collapse. Like a grenade-wielding terrorist willing to die and take an airplane of hostages down with him, Dear Leader Kim Jong-il will never surrender. His threats of war must therefore be taken with the utmost seriousness.

South Korea is in no mood for a confrontation. The country is divided and weak, with no will to resist should push come to shove.

Japan is anxious and apprehensive—and angry—but not in any position to needlessly antagonize or provoke Pyongyang.

Beijing is apparently resigned to putting up with its belligerent vassal—which, in spite of the risks and aggravation, provides the People's Liberation Army with a potentially useful deterrent to possible U.S. intervention in the event of a Chinese assault on breakaway, self-ruled Taiwan. China may be trying to engineer an eventual change or gradual collapse of the Kimist regime. There could even be a coup—with at least tacit Chinese backing—one day, but not now.

So for the time being, Dear Leader could make out like a bandit. Economic assistance, security assurances, international recognition and respect, even prestige-enhancing, protracted reunification talks with the South—the whole nine yards—are all his for the taking.

The above analysis assumes a reasonably rational actor, of course, which, in Kim's case, may be a hopelessly unrealistic assumption. Sensing weakness on the part of his real and imagined enemies, and feeling ever more encircled, he could just as easily escalate the crisis--with new nuclear and/or missile tests—as move to intelligently exploit and end it.


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