Even if North Korea refuses to rejoin six-party talks, they can still have a useful function.
Nuclear blackmail is an old trick of Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s 68-year-old dictator, learnt at the knee of his father, Kim Il Sung. Since April 5th, and the launching of what North Korea said was a satellite but the rest of the world reckons was a failed missile, he has been at it again. North Korea expelled United Nations inspectors from its ageing reactor complex at Yongbyon and now declares itself no longer bound by the six-party process involving South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States that was meant to lead to abandonment of its nuclear-weapons programmes, in return for aid and respect. After days of wrangling over the launch, the UN Security Council delivered no more than a light knuckle-rapping.
Yet North Korea professes to be insulted. It threatens to rebuild Yongbyon and start making weapons-grade plutonium again. This week, after its first talks with the South in more than a year farcically broke down after just 22 minutes, it accused the South of “a vicious criminal act”: the shifting of a border post. The chances of some sort of armed skirmish have risen.
So far, so consistent with North Korea’s traditional belligerence. Back in 1994 Bill Clinton promised aid and two light-water civilian reactors in return for closing Yongbyon, yet Mr Kim started new nuclear work. Promising to be less gullible, George Bush listed North Korea in his “axis of evil”. Mr Kim merely redoubled his nuclear efforts, exploding a device inside a mountain in October 2006, despite a 2005 agreement to denuclearise. Mr Bush’s envoys suggested more talks. Having already sold Yongbyon twice, to both Mr Clinton and Mr Bush, Mr Kim presumably intends to sell it a third time, to Barack Obama.
Yet if the aim was to engage Mr Obama on Mr Kim’s terms, it has backfired. That is partly because the launch failed, despite North Korea’s claims that its satellite is beaming back chirpy revolutionary songs. This is its third long-distance missile test; all flops. Though North Korea’s short- and medium-range missiles threaten South Korea and Japan, it is far from having a deterrent to any American nuclear attack. Its only nuclear explosion was thought a damp squib. Miniaturising nuclear warheads is hard, and the North has enough plutonium for just ten or so nuclear devices. Reprocessing the remaining spent fuel rods at Yongbyon would give it one more bomb. In this sense only, more nuclear tests would actually help, by using up what plutonium is left.
So North Korea remains a rogue state with an alarming nuclear programme rather than being a nuclear power in its own right. Mr Obama’s North Korean policy is unformulated, and his foreign-policy and security team incomplete. But the clearer the shortcomings of the North’s nuclear programmes, the less Mr Obama will be inclined to rush like his predecessor into deals that quickly unravel. That will reassure South Korea and Japan, which despaired that Mr Bush’s negotiations sometimes allowed North Korea to drive a wedge between America and its allies.
Mr Kim’s belligerence has backfired in political terms too. In his inaugural address, Mr Obama said he would extend a hand to those willing to unclench their fist. He faces criticism at home for reaching out to Iran and for greeting Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s strongman. It would be too much of a gift to hardline Republicans if he also extended his hand to Mr Kim’s clenched one. So the grand bilateral bargain that the Dear Leader has long wanted—aid, full recognition and security guarantees in return for giving up his box of nuclear tricks—remains as remote as ever. The North’s oppressed and impoverished people are the victims.
What happens next depends in part on China, North Korea’s ally. At the recent Bo’ao Forum, China’s answer to Davos, on Hainan island, a string of Chinese policymakers shunned Deng Xiaoping’s dictum that China should “keep a cool head, maintain a low profile and never take the lead”, arguing instead for what amounted to a new world order, centred in Asia (read China). Some Western commentators divine a profound shift as China bids for the role of global hegemon.
If this claim can be tested anywhere, it is presumably in the six-party process, which China hosts. Yet here the claim falls short, and not only because China struggles to influence its small neighbour. China had as much reason as anyone, or more, for falling in with international condemnation of the rocket launch, as it did after North Korea’s nuclear test. The provocation only raises the odds that America, Japan and South Korea will develop anti-missile defences that undermine China’s own deterrence. Worse, an unrestrained North Korea might conceivably push Japan into going nuclear, as Japanese hawks are once again suggesting. Either path would mean a new regional security order even less of China’s making than the current one.
Five can party, too
So it is in China’s interests that the six-party talks continue, as they should: even without the North, their main object. This would signal that no one is in a hurry to re-engage with North Korea solely on its terms, but that the door is still open. More important, remaining members have much to get on with. The recent brouhaha may speak of internal tensions in North Korea. After a presumed stroke last year, Mr Kim looks physically half the man he used to be. For lack of any official pronouncements, rumours swirl about his succession.
The best outcome for most North Koreans must presumably be for the Kim regime to crumble, despite the risks that might follow, including huge refugee flows, civil war and quantities of weapons of mass destruction falling into the wrong hands. Yet contingency planning done collectively by the North’s neighbours and the United States is almost nil. Here is a good purpose for the six-party forum. China, as a close neighbour, would be hugely affected by turmoil in North Korea. It has every reason to lead efforts in planning for it.