If President Barack Obama continues to promise that diplomacy will be his preferred strategy in international affairs, the North Koreans will happily keep him to his word while they continue building nuclear weapons and making billions of dollars annually smuggling weapons across the globe.
The wily N. Koreans see diplomacy as a means to a never ending succession of talks, promises, broken agreements and financial inducements from the West. They have become so adept at fooling the United States that the diplomatic efforts of Obama will be yet another challenge they will surely relish and feel they can handle with the utmost confidence.
In 2007, the N. Koreans engaged in six-party talks,promising to begin a process aimed at dismantling their nuclear program in return for much needed oil for their crumbling infrastructure and food for their starving people. Washington heralded that agreement a success but it soon proved to be a failure. It came on the back of previous agreements and unfulfilled promises.
None of that history of failed diplomacy appeared to be on Obama’s mind when he engaged the regime of the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, the late father of the new leader, Kim Jong-un. Obama sent an envoy, Stephen Bosworth, to the country’s capital, Pyongyang. After talks lasting 48 hours, Bosworth left Pyongyang with a few well-chosen words for the media but remained tight-lipped about the nature of the joint discussions in which he had participated. True to form, however, the N. Koreans issued one of their familiar, if not colorful statements, describing the talks as “exhaustive, candid and wide ranging.”
If Bosworth, which is highly unlikely, had tried to cover all issues related to N. Korea in two days, then the discussions would have been exhausting as well as exhaustive. As for “wide ranging and candid,” those words are irrelevant, given the fact Kim Jong-il’s regime has rarely been willing to discuss more than one topic at a time. As for “candid,” N. Korea has never been honest or transparent. Instead, it demonstrated a legendary penchant for deception. Had Bosworth’s talks been, as they were described by N. Korea, then surely another round of talks would have been announced. That was not the case. Bosworth admitted no date had been set for further talks, especially bi-lateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
Perhaps Obama will soon learn that N. Korea sees diplomacy as a merry-go-round of talks and promises of talks, followed by innocuous public statements. But, even if Obama were to forge an agreement with this latest N. Korean figurehead, Kim John-un, what would such an agreement be worth? According to South Korean observers, it would be worth nothing. The N. Korean tactic is to sit around a table threatening mayhem and demanding compensation much like the director of a board or an organized crime boss. Despite previous talks, the N. Koreans conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2007.
While the present pasty-faced leader waits for suitors like Obama’s envoy to come knocking, the regime will continue to develop clandestine smuggling networks to send arms to trouble spots across the globe. Despite all the illegal N. Korean arms seized by the U.S. and its allies each year, mostly on the high seas, enough shipments get through to earn the N. Koreans billion of dollars annually – enough to maintain a nuclear program.
From Jong-un’s perspective, possessing nuclear weapons has established his country as the ninth nuclear nation. He sees his nuclear arsenal not only as a deterrent but also as a bargaining chip to get what he wants from the West. In the latter respect, by most standards, he has succeeded. Each time he raises the threat level, he gets the attention of the West. What he really wants is aid he required to feed his massive military. Like the late Chinese leader, Mao-Tse-tung, he has a private, luxury railway, which he uses to visit military installations. As a rule, he will probably shun air travel, just like his late father.
The regime must still be smarting over the loss some time ago of 35 tons of weapons, including surface-to-air missile launchers, grenade launchers, rocket launchers and automatic weapons, which were discovered on a plane that had to make an emergency landing in Bangkok. The plane had been registered in Georgia but its final destination was unclear. Israeli sources immediately claimed the arms were bound for Iran though that was a typical knee jerk reaction one expects from the Israelis anytime N. Korean arms are intercepted. The tendency to link N. Korea and Iran when an arms shipment is seized is part of a political strategy by Israel. In this case, the cargo could just as easily have been en route to Pakistan, Afghanistan or a host of Middle East nations or militias. The fact is that N. Korea will sell arms to anyone if the price is right. In this instance, the Sri Lankan authorities quickly denied knowledge of the plane’s cargo and of its existence but reports soon surfaced that the seizure of the plane occurred as a result of a tip-off from U.S. intelligence and that a crew of three from Kazakhstan and Belarus was arrested.
N. Korea has become adept at using shipping lanes to conceal weapons labeled ‘oil drilling equipment’ or ‘perishable goods.’ In July, an illegal shipment labeled ‘oil drilling parts’ was seized on a French-owned, Bahamian-flagged ship. The ship had containers holding a massive quantity of arms, ammunition and explosives. The weapons had begun their voyage in a N. Korean port where they were loaded on a ship that took them to China. Once there, they were shipped to Shanghai and transferred to the French-owned vessel, which was eventually boarded in the Gulf. Even though the final destination of that cargo was not determined, Israel still claimed it was on its way to Iran.
The seizures of arms have in no way impeded N. Korea’s ability to devise new clandestine networks, smuggling routes and methods. They have been plying this illegal trade for such a long time that they are now experts at it. Back in 2002, Spanish warships stopped a ship in the Gulf of Aden and discovered it contained a N. Korean cargo of Scud missiles. U.S. intelligence sources claimed the cargo was on its way to a buyer in Yemen. The buyer was reckoned to be the Yemeni government or a private individual acting on behalf of a militia in the region. At the time, it was understood the shipment was one of many others that had got through.
In light of the ability of the N. Koreans to make money despite crippling sanctions over the years, it is unlikely any diplomatic overtures from the Obama White House are going dissuade them from doing what they do best, namely suckering the West into merry-go-rounds of talks in return for oil and food while they continue with their nuclear program and the building of new smuggling networks. Obama has to understand that, while Kim Jong Un is a carbon copy of his late father, “The Great Leader” Kim Jong-il, he may well be much more unpredictable and dangerous. There is a real risk he thinks nuclear weapons are like the toys he played with not so long ago in kindergarten in Switzerland.
*Richard Walker is the pen name of a former N.Y. news producer.