April 16, 2009 | Forbes.com

We Need Action,Not Words, On North Korea

President Barack Obama's hollow response to North Korea's April 5 illicit missile test amounts to another score for North Korea's Kim Jong Il. Kim has again defied the so-called international community, and received in reply another round of words, words, words–along with a lot of urging that North Korea return to the nuclear bargaining table, for yet more words.

Watching this deference to North Korea's rocket tests, I'm reminded of an observation by novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. He said that dictators don't just happen, but rather “dictators are made with the collaboration of many people.” How perverse that among the collaborators keeping North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Il in power should be the leader of the free world, the United States of America.

Not that this began with Obama; nor has support for Kim Jong Il exactly been America's stated goal. For most of the past 15 years since Kim inherited North Korea's totalitarian cockpit from his late father, Kim Il Sung, Washington has been on a grand quest to wean Kim away from his passion for munitions of mass destruction. This has entailed a mix of diplomatic haggling, permeable sanctions and flat-out bribery, in collaboration with various partners, most recently by way of the Six Party Talks–involving China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the U.S. and North Korea itself.

Judged in terms of bipartisan labors, all this has been quite a success. It has involved the input of Democrats such as former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton; as well as Republican president George Bush–whose second-term secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, together with her Six Party Talks point man, Chris Hill, in their pursuit of groveling appeasement went to lengths that would have astonished Neville “peace-for-our-time” Chamberlain.

But judged in terms of the professed goals of disarming Kim, securing stability in Northeast Asia and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them, this approach has been a landmark failure. Instead of making America or our allies safer, it has allowed Kim's regime to strut the runways of world politics.

One need only watch a stock video snippet of the Six Party Talks to see the importance with which this process invested North Korea. Instead of featuring as pariahs, Kim's envoys too often appeared as the belles of the ball. They were courted by Bush administration envoy Chris Hill amid a whirl of geopolitical paparazzi, all hanging on the next twitch of a regime that isolates, starves and crushes its 23 million people, while building bombs, selling missiles, counterfeiting U.S. currency and receiving floral baskets delivered by the likes of Iran, Syria, Equatorial Guinea and the Palestinian Authority.

Since former President Jimmy Carter set this diplomatic ball rolling with a visit to Pyongyang in 1994–yielding the Clinton administration's failed plan to buy off Kim with two free nuclear reactors and other favors–the upshot of all these years of diplomacy (with a brief break during the Bush first term) has been a flow of billions worth of American-supplied or -facilitated free food, fuel and other concessions to Pyongyang.

During this same 15-year period since taking charge, Kim has proliferated nuclear technology and missile delivery systems to the Middle East, diverted international food aid to help maintain one of the world's largest standing armies, engaged in illicit tests of long-range missiles and, in 2006, tested a nuclear bomb.

Now it is President Obama's turn to tackle this mess. North Korea has just “engaged” in its habitual game of chicken, going ahead on April 5 with a ballistic missile test. Pyongyang described the missile test as the launch of a communications satellite, calling the mystery item it claimed to have launched into space the Kwangmyongsong-2. North Korea's state news agency (it has no other kind) has reported that the satellite/missile is orbiting the earth every 104 minutes and 12 seconds, broadcasting “the melodies of immortal revolutionary paeans 'Song of General Kim Il Sung' and 'Song of General Kim Jong Il.'”

Obama denounced the launch as a “clear violation” of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, which forbids North Korea from ballistic-missile-related activities of any kind. Declaring that “words must mean something,” he called for a “strong international response” and turned to the U.N. Security Council.

The Security Council dithered for a week, unwilling even to pass another futile resolution, and finally issued a “statement,” demanding that North Korea “not conduct any further launch.” There is also a U.N. plan to “adjust” sanctions on North Korea by the end of this month. But that has small chance of being effective unless Obama finds a way to compel cooperation from the same Security Council members, such as Russia and China, which could not even bring themselves to produce a resolution.

In circumstances like this, one might suppose it would be America and friends who would walk away from the bargaining table, cut off all aid to North Korea, gin up some credible threats of force and leave Kim to contemplate his sins. Instead, it is Kim, the offender, whose regime has declared itself miffed by the toothless U.N. statement, has rejected talks with a howl of “never again” and has announced plans to restart North Korea's nuclear program. (Although, given the country's suspected secret program to enrich uranium, as well as its proliferation network that helped produce the clandestine Syrian reactor destroyed in 2007 by the Israelis, there's no good reason to think that North Korea ever actually stopped its nuclear program–even during the Six Party Talks heyday in 2007, when North Korean negotiator Kim Kye Gwan was quaffing cocktails with Hill at New York's Waldorf Hotel).

It gets worse. If Kim's regime has access to the same open sources the rest of us do, Kim and his cronies have surely noticed that despite Obama's words, millions worth of American resources are still rolling their way, via a supplemental spending bill now working its way through Congress.

Presented as Obama's request for emergency funds to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan, the bill is laced with treats for North Korea. These include $95 million for heavy fuel oil (the next stage in a long series of such doles for North Korea) and $47 million to support dismantling North Korean nuclear facilities (a process that has already entailed the U.S. paying millions for the Potemkin demolition of a cooling tower, but which after almost two years of “dismantling,” has evidently failed to dismantle the facilities Kim has now vowed to restart). There is also a waiver that would allow energy assistance to support the aims of talks with North Korea–possibly reopening the door to providing Kim with free light-water reactors. (Which can, in fact, be used to produce bomb fuel).

Which is more delusional? North Korea's official line that the missile test was all about launching a (nonexistent) communications satellite? Or America's relentless pursuit of diplomacy, which in the name of peace helps sustain and even exalt the monstrous proliferation-prone military machinery of Pyongyang?

The usual argument is that all this haggling has at least retarded Kim's development of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons–perhaps delaying the day when he would have the ability to strike Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the diplomats hope for some deus ex machina which might either transmute their fictions into genuine breakthroughs, or replace Kim's regime with something or someone benign enough to scrap the nuclear program, if not the gulag.

But even if Kim has to date refrained from anything beyond, say, building bombs and peddling missiles and nuclear technology to terror-sponsoring Islamic regimes, still worse damage is already being done. Among the world's gang of rogue regimes, Kim Jong Il has blazed a trail of brazen proliferation of both missiles and nuclear technology. In the Islamic world, rife with Kim's munitions clients and business partners such as Syria, Iran and Pakistan, America's enemies take notice of each failure of American nerve.

The real delusion is that North Korea can be defused while Kim remains in power. And behind that chimera lies the real horror, which is that America's diplomats and presidents have every reason to understand the bizarre nature of their own fictions and prevarications. The totalitarian character of Kim's system is clear; the global extent of his rackets is horrifying; the murderous brutality with which he treats his own subjects is clearly documented.

What's missing is the will to actually do anything about it. Kim Jong Il has effectively converted his entire country into a suicide vest. It is an example not lost on such suicide-wardrobe experts as the ayatollahs of Iran. How to solve this is a huge problem, but an easy first step would be to strip the goodies for Kim out of that supplemental spending bill. And if the U.S. insists on seeking more talks with Kim–whose tantrums are a familiar part of the North Korean bargaining process–a useful step two would be to dispense with the diplomats. Instead, how about sending to the table those U.S. Navy Seals who just shot dead three Somali pirates and captured a fourth. Send them to the negotiating table with instructions not to say anything at all. That would mean more than any of the words to date.

Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.com.

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