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Hither and Yon

U.S. continues to tolerate N. Korean WMD, but can Pyongyang handle satire?

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
The rapid-fire sequence of events surrounding the film “The Interview” raises a familiar question: When will the world lose patience with the North Korean regime and toss out the “supreme leader” along with the flunkies and toadies and cronies surrounding him? Or do we need the regime in place as a buffer among quarreling great powers?
This is easy to ask but never easy to answer. In fact, the answers may be getting more difficult while Kim Jong-Un talks about talks with the South while his people move ever closer to miniaturizing a nuclear device to attach to a long-range missile. Are we looking at the same familiar pattern or a new level of diplomacy and terrorism?
Certainly the U.S. has done very little to “punish” North Korea, as promised by President Obama, for breaching Sony Entertainment’s entire computer system. While the North’s anonymous “Guardians of Peace” threatened mass destruction in retaliation for the assault on “the dignity” perpetrated against Kim Jong-Un in “The Interview,” Obama did nothing more than brandish a few tired old sanctions.
What is most striking about the sanctions imposed by Obama is that they really have nothing, or almost nothing, to do with cyber-terrorism. Rather, they purport to ban North Korea from anything remotely to do with the U.S. banking system, meaning the North’s state trading companies will have a hard time making or spending dollars exporting arms, ranging from rifles to missiles, to bad guys such as Iran and Syria.
You have to wonder, though, how much North Korea counted on access to the flow of dollars after enduring sanctions imposed for testing three nuclear warheads and firing a long-range missile capable of reaching the U.S. west coast. Also, as the U.S. Treasury Department revealed, the sanctions specifically targeted about ten people responsible for selling North Korean arms to Iran, Syria and others deemed hostile to the U.S. and other western countries.
Most interestingly, two of those named are based in Shenyang in northeastern China and in Moscow. The inference is clear: The U.S. believes that North Korean missiles and other weapons are moving through China and Russia, by plane or overland, even though China and Russia superficially have signed on to sanctions. In other words, while China seems to criticize North Korea as an obstreperous client state, Chinese leaders aren’t interested in getting tough with the regime the Chinese saved from destruction in the Korean War and have been saving from starvation ever since.
As North Korea develops ever more nuclear warheads and the missiles on which to deliver them, you have to wonder whether a mere slap on the wrist — a “pinprick” as one knowledgeable expert here put it — as ordered by President Obama is sending the wrong signal again. The message, as always, seems to be, shame on you, now stop being so naughty. Not for nothing did Obama characterize the North Korean hack into Sony as an act of “vandalism,” not of war.
The alternatives, though, aren’t so nice either. What if the U.S. gets really tough and threatens the North militarily? That can’t happen unless other powers in the region, China, Russia and Japan, are willing to apply real pressure on the North. You’d have to be fantasizing totally, of course, to think these countries, all terrible rivals, historically and currently, would possibly cooperate. More likely, they would turn portions of North Korea into battlefields where they would clash with one another.
Yet another consideration is that South Korea is in no mood whatsoever for a second Korean War that might spiral into a regional Armageddon. Kim Jong-Un and Park Geun-Hye both have talked about talking to one another. Nobody would take North Korea’s proposal at face value. Obviously a lot will have to happen before Kim invites Park to Pyongyang for a third inter-Korean summit. Still, the fact that both of them have broached the idea indicates a certain desire to ease North-South tensions.
Or does it? We’ve been disillusioned and disappointed so often that it’s a little difficult to be optimistic about any of the happy talk we hear from time to time. There’s no telling when North Korea will stage another bloody “incident,” no way of knowing if the North will finally avenge the “indignity” of the satirical assault on Kim Jong-Un in “The Interview.”
The greatest aspect of “The Interview” was that it ridiculed a man and a dynasty that every North Korean is forced to worship as the holiest of holies. What if the film gets shown surreptitiously in North Korea — whether smuggled across the border from China or dropped by balloons fired from the South? And what if it encourages some level of secret dissent? Probably the best hope is that the dynasty succumbs not to foreign intervention but to internal revolt.
Or should we expect the same familiar cycles of crisis with no definitive outcome — preferable to war but not exactly a final solution?
Columnist Donald Kirk has been watching history unfolding on the Korean peninsula for decades. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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