Shortly after unveiling a new uranium enrichment facility, North Korea has shelled a disputed island held by the Republic of Korea. A score of South Koreans reportedly were killed or wounded.
These two steps underscore the North’s reputation for recklessness. Unfortunately, there is no easy solution: serious military retaliation risks full-scale war, while intensified sanctions will have no impact without China’s support.
Instead, the U.S. should join with the ROK in an intensive diplomatic offensive in Beijing. So far China has assumed that the Korean status quo is to its advantage. However, Washington and Seoul should point out that Beijing has much to lose if things go badly in North Korea.
The North is about to embark on a potentially uncertain leadership transition. North Koreans remain impoverished; indeed, malnutrition reportedly is spreading. With the regime apparently determined to press ahead with its nuclear program while committing regular acts of war against the South, the entire peninsula could go up in flames. China would be burned, along with the rest of North Korea’s neighbors.
The U.S. also should inform Beijing that Washington might choose not to remain in the middle if the North continues its nuclear program. Given the choice of forever guaranteeing South Korean and Japanese security against an irresponsible North Korea, or allowing those nations to decide on their own defense, including possible acquisition of nuclear weapons, the U.S. would seriously consider the latter. Then China would have to deal with the consequences.
Beijing’s best option would be to join with the U.S. and South Korea in offering a package deal for denuclearization, backed by effective sanctions, meaning the cut-off of Chinese food and energy assistance. Otherwise, Beijing might find itself sharing in a future North Korean nightmare.
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At 85, former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung has died of heart failure. Elected in 1997, he was the architect of South Korea's "Sunshine Policy" with the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea, highlighted by the first South-North summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. Kim Dae-jung's presidency ended in disappointment -- Pyongyang took advantage of South Korean generosity while corruption reached into his family.
But he fought heroically for human rights against the South's old military regime. He ran for president in an election stolen by Park Chung-hee and was kidnapped while in exile in Japan. He avoided death at sea when the Reagan administration, alerted to the crime, warned Seoul that he had better arrive alive in South Korea.
I met him in 1989 shortly after his defeat in the first free election after the dissolution of military rule. Imperious but principled, he seemed destined to spend the rest of his life in opposition. But he persevered and triumphed.
Kim Dae-jung's flaws were manifest, but his personal courage and commitment to democracy were without question. May he rest in peace.
It's hard to know what to believe about the misnamed Democratic People's Republic of Korea. But reports are circulating that North Korean officials are attempting to purchase medical equipment for treating "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il. That in turn suggests that his condition might be worsening.
Reports Agence France-Presse:
A South Korean newspaper has said the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il is rapidly worsening and Pyongyang is trying to import expensive medical equipment through China.
The North is also seeking to bring in an emergency helicopter, the South's largest-selling daily Chosun Ilbo reported on Friday.
Kim is widely believed to have suffered a stroke last August but there was no confirmation of the latest report. The National Intelligence Service declined to comment.
Chosun said Pyongyang's Ponghwa Hospital is treating the 67-year-old.
It said officials of the hospital who are based in Beijing are trying to buy medical equipment which has been banned under an embargo imposed in 2006 to punish the North's first nuclear test.
The UN resolution does not ban the import of medical equipment, only items which could be related to weapons programmes.
"Kim's illness appears to be serious," a North Korean source in Beijing told the newspaper.
The 67-year-old had a stroke last year and both his rotund figure and bouffant hair have thinned of late. The world, and especially North Korea, would be a better place without him, but no one knows what would follow.
Kim apparently has annointed his 26-year-old son to succeed him, but it will take years to switch the levers of power in favor of the "Cute Leader," as he has been nicknamed by Westerners. (In North Korea he apparently is being referred to as "Brilliant Comrade.")
More likely would be a collective leadership, perhaps led by Kim's brother-in-law, with increased influence for the military. That would probably make a negotiated settlement eliminating the North's nuclear program even less likely. But no one really knows.
We can only look forward to the day when this humanitarian horror of a country disappears and North Koreans are allowed to again live as normal human beings.