September 25, 2008 |

A Clear And Present Nuclear Danger

Quit coddling North Korea.

Wall Street's meltdown has almost swept it from the news, but right now Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has on her hands a diplomatic debacle in North Korea that may ultimately prove even more dangerous than the mess in the markets.

The problem is not just that Pyongyang is now trumpeting its plan to re-start the same Yongbyon nuclear reactor that it has twice shut down since 1994–each time in exchange for massive aid and concessions from America and friends. Nor does the problem stop with signs that North Korea is planning another long-range missile test (hello, Los Angeles) or with worries that, along with peddling missiles and nuclear technology to the Middle East, North Korea might just sell a nuclear weapon or two to terrorists who have a grudge against America.

The jumbo, overarching problem is that North Korea's regime, with its knack for making Washington's star diplomats dance like marionettes, has become a world showcase for the payola of running a nuclear extortion racket. Especially for the past year and a half, Pyongyang has been demonstrating to thug governments everywhere the amazing leverage that a nuclear arms program can provide to even a small rogue regime willing to play chicken with the U.S.

Since agreeing in February 2007 to the latest denuclearization deal, North Korea has unilaterally revised the terms as it pleases, demanded hard cash upfront, shrugged off deadlines and refused to disclose anything about the clandestine uranium-enrichment program that it appears to have. Oh, and while promising last year to give up its nukes, North Korea went on for months secretly collaborating with Syria in completing a copy-Yongbyon reactor on the Euphrates, with no clear purpose but to produce plutonium for weapons, smack in the heart of the Middle East. That was shut down not by the North Koreans or the Syrians, but by an Israeli air strike last September.

Were U.S. diplomats daunted by any of this? Hardly. Like the Clinton administration, when Kim cheated on a previous nuclear freeze deal, the Bush administration in recent years has winked, shrugged and even abetted Pyongyang's games. Last year, to comply with North Korean demands, Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill, top wheedler to North Korea, enlisted the help of the U.S. Federal Reserve, no less, to transfer $25 million in crime-tainted frozen funds from Macau's Banco Delta Asia back to Pyongyang. Since then, North Korea has been receiving free fuel shipments and America has been pouring in aid via the United Nations World Food Program, which now proposes to send more than half a billion dollars worth of food to North Korea over the next 15 months–despite Pyongyang's long record of diverting such help to the military.

The list of American concessions and gifts goes on. But most appalling has been the U.S. surrender of principle on matters of human rights for North Korea's 22 million people, who during Kim's 14-year reign have been imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands and starved to death by the millions. Having appointed a special envoy, Jay Lefkowitz, to address these horrors, Bush and Rice then sidelined him as irrelevant to wheeling-and-dealing with North Korea–especially after Lefkowitz gave a speech this past January noting, correctly, that the Six-Party talks had failed.

What has the U.S. received from North Korea in return? No real access, that's for sure. Along with the continuing mystery about the full scope of North Korea's nuclear programs, networks and weapons stockpiles, U.S. officials aren't even sure right now whether North Korean ruler, Kim Jong Il, is alive or dead. And despite the diplomatic and financial bonanza for Pyongyang, not one ounce of plutonium has been handed over. Not one bomb or missile has been destroyed. Apparently nothing has been demolished that can't be rebuilt in a hurry.

When the State Department, to its credit, finally balked recently at removing North Korea from the list of terrorist-sponsoring states, pending some way to verify its nuclear activities, North Korea told the U.S. to take a hike. But even now, the State Department can't tear itself away from the bargaining table. “We're going to remain engaged with the North Koreans,” was how a spokesman put it last week, adding that the next president–whoever that might be–is unlikely to do anything different.

One can only hope the next president will take a different tack. The way it's going now, should anyone be surprised that Iran is speeding along the wayward nuclear trail blazed by North Korea? Is it any wonder that Syria thought it worth a shot to collaborate with North Korea in building a secret nuclear plant? Can others be far behind?

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North Korea