WASHINGTON, March 5 (UPI) -- What is Kim Jong-il up to? Why is the previously cautious leader of reclusive North Korea repeatedly provoking the United States and how far will he go?
As UPI reported Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has deployed 12 B-52 and 12 B-1 bombers to the U.S. Pacific island air base of Guam as a military deterrent against North Korea amid fears that Pyongyang may rapidly start processing plutonium or test another of its developing missile arsenal.
The first thing to note is that Kim, leader of arguably the most repressive state in the world, has already gone a long way and that nobody in the Bush administration ever dreamed he would go so far. North Korea's pattern of provocations against the United States since last fall has been consistent and escalating. And it marks a radical change from the Hermit Kingdom's previous policies towards the United States.
North Korea's admission last fall that it had been systematically violating the terms of its 1994 nuclear accord with the United States negotiated by the Clinton administration did not surprise conservatives either in or out of the current Bush administration in Washington. What astonished them -- and everyone else -- was Pyongyang's brazen willingness to admit it. And since then, North Korea has systematically intensified its provocations against the United States.
Within the past few weeks alone, North Korea has test-fired its own cruise missile across the Sea of Japan and its fighters have buzzed a U.S. electronic surveillance, or so-called "spy plane" flying off its borders but clearly in international air space.
It is ironic on several grounds -- and also highly significant -- that North Korea has systematically upped the ante in direct proportion to the increasing commitment of U.S. armed forces in the Persian Gulf to launch a widely anticipated military campaign there to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
For over the past six months, Saddam has repeatedly -- and with considerable diplomatic skill -- made concessions that, however token in real terms, have garnered sympathy for him throughout the Arab World and Western Europe at America's expense. Saddam, in striking contrast to Kim, has allowed United Nations arms inspectors into his territory, has acknowledged at least small amounts of potential biological warfare material and has agreed to destroy at least a token number of ballistic missiles. North Korea has done none of those things.
And yet, the Bush administration, while relentlessly brushing aside and dismissing every concession from Saddam has gone out of its way to turn a blind eye to the -- at least at first glance -- far more unpredictable and confrontational actions carried out by Pyongyang.
In a recent Washington Post column, influential columnist Charles Krauthammer admitted the contradiction in U.S. policy and acknowledged the real reason for it. Precisely because the Bush administration has been so ponderously marshalling its armed forces to topple Saddam, it does not want to have to fight a simultaneous full-scale war against North Korea at the other end of Asia.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, himself, has publicly claimed that the administration is able and willing to do precisely that. But Krauthammer -- ironically, one of the most triumphal champions of America's sole global hegemony since the collapse of communism -- admitted that in practice this was simply not possible. Therefore, he wrote the United States now had to play a waiting game in the face of North Korea's provocations precisely because it had to take care of Saddam first.
Krauthammer, unlike virtually every serving and retired regular Army -- apart from gung-ho special forces commanders and Marine three and four star officer -- has repeatedly publicly announced his confidence that the toppling of Saddam would probably be the work of only a few days, at the most of a few weeks. Then, he believes the administration can turn to coercing Pyongyang and facing it down in its own leisurely time. However, the problem for him -- and for the Bush administration too -- is that Kim Jong-il has come to the same conclusion.
For top South Korean intelligence officials, benefiting from the flood of defectors and their improved access to the North in recent years have repeatedly warned Washington -- to deaf ears, it appears -- that Kim is no such thing. He may be bad but he is not mad. He has been the effective ruler of the North for more than two decades and its sole ruler for the last nine since the death of his father Kim Il-sung. He has been utterly ruthless and repressive through all that time. Yet he has never before gone about systematically generating incidents to defy the United States, internationally humiliate it or test how far he can get away with such behavior. Therefore why has he changed? Why is he doing those things now?
The answer appears to be a very obvious one. A year ago, President George W. Bush referred to North Korea, as well as Iraq and Iran, as part of an international axis of evil. And ever since then he has slowly and systematically -- indeed remorselessly -- lined up his arguments, justifications and armed forces to attack Iraq and topple its leader Saddam.
But if Iraq merits that treatment as being one of the so-called "rogue states" comprising Bush's axis of evil, It therefore follows that North Korea, whose regime has killed at least twice as many people as Saddam's over the past 20 years, must merit the same treatment once Saddam is disposed of.
Therefore, if Kim wants to deter the United States from taking such action, or alarm Japan and South Korea into abandoning their historic alliances with America and forcing U.S. troops off their soil, then he must do it now, while the United States is in fact still fully committed in the Persian Gulf against Saddam. For the longer he waits, the greater the danger to him that he will face the full might of U.S. global diplomacy and military power alone.
And there are growing signs that Kim's diplomatic and strategic assessments, far from being mad may be extremely shrewd. On Wednesday, both The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times reported that not only Asian nations but also the U.S. government have begun to accept the idea of living side by side with a nuclear armed North Korea. In the Bush administration's case in particular, such a policy reversal would be a humiliating retreat from the flood of statements and pontifications that have claimed such a concession would be utterly unacceptable. But if Kim can win that huge admission from Washington, he could certainly rest a lot more easy that the gamble of regime change by force currently being planned against Iraq will never be attempted against him.
Kim's actions now are therefore far from unpredictable and certainly not insane. From his -- and Pyongyang's -- perspective they make frighteningly lucid sense. And the very pusillanimity of Washington's response to his provocations so far clearly has only emboldened him to continue escalating them.
There are three enormous ironies to this picture. The first is that the very gung-ho policy against Saddam that administration super-hawks and their media chorus have for so long claimed is essential to deter Third World rogue state dictators has instead encouraged one of the worst of them -- Kim -- to be far more aggressive, unpredictable and dangerous than he ever was before.
The second is that the president's macho policy of refusing to negotiate with Kim -- in contrast to his much-derided predecessor Bill Clinton -- has not intimidated the North Korean leader at all, as it was supposed to do. Instead it has backfired too and clearly made him more threatening not less.
And the third irony is that instead of the world being impressed by U.S. determination to take out Saddam, that policy has been overshadowed by the picture of an inconsistent and irresolute U.S. president who appears to have no idea what to do to deter Kim.
That is what Kim is up to and that is why he continues to pluck the American Eagle's feathers. As to how far he will go, who knows? Will he at some point even consider an aggressive pre-emptive war against South Korea and the United States? That still appears unlikely, but in truth the possibility can no longer be ruled out.
For no one in Washington ever dreamed Kim would go as far has he already has. So he could go a lot further yet.
Next: America's Options.