What Kim Jong Il Wants
Answers to that question, posed by Germany's Spiegel Online after last week's confirmed nuclear test, abound in the international online media. The reclusive leader is said to be using his nuclear capability to extract concessions, protect his government, blackmail his neighbors or make money -- perhaps all of the above.
The North Korean leader, presiding over an impoverished nation with an enormous military, has parlayed nuclear weapons expertise into economic and geopolitical advantage. Though his country has suffered famine and stagnation since he took power in 1994, Kim has maintained his grip on near-absolute power and obtained food and trade assistance both from longtime ally China and longtime enemy South Korea. Now that he controls weapons of mass destruction, observers say the question of his motives has never mattered more.
Kim's personal eccentricities -- he watches Hollywood movies, wears platform shoes and sports a bouffant hairstyle in order to appear taller than his 5 feet 3 inches -- are often detailed in news reports.
"Diplomats and escaped dissidents talk of a vain, paranoid, cognac-guzzling hypochondriac," the BBC noted last week.
But the BBC but warned against the assumption that such "eccentricity means inability."
"Mr Kim is said to assiduously follow international events on the internet, and some see him as a clever manipulator, willing to take great risks to underpin his regime....Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has met Mr Kim, said that the North Korean leader was very well informed and 'was not delusional'."
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Aaron Friedberg, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, described Kim as "a cunning and rational strategist with one overriding objective: ensuring his own survival by maintaining an absolute grip on power."
He's "a wily nutbar," says Edmonton Sun columnist Lyn Cockburn, "who knows exactly how to keep his starving people in check, his army in top form and the West on the edge of its seat."
So just what does Kim hope to accomplish?
Strong-Arming the U.S.
"Pyongyang apparently believes that prolonging the nuclear crisis will be advantageous by confirming it as a nuclear power, which will lead toward an international solution through talks with the United States," said Japan's Daily Yomiuri.
Selig Harrison, a Washington-based critic of the Bush administration's Korea policy, told the Britain's New Statesman that last week's test was intended to rebuff a financial embargo imposed by Washington last year and force the Washington to negotiate directly with his government.
"In North Korean eyes, pressure must be met with pressure to maintain national honour, and, hopefully, to jump-start new bilateral negotiations with Washington," he told the British news magazine.
But the Tapei Times suggests any attempts at reviving six-party talks are pointless.
"All has been futile because the North Koreans are not serious about negotiating. What they want is evident: A peace treaty ending the Korean War of 1950-1953, which the US is willing to sign. Beyond that, they want a non-aggression pact, diplomatic relations with the US, a lifting of sanctions, an abrogation of the US-South Korea security treaty and all US troops off the Korean Peninsula," writes Richard Halloran. "For the US, most of those demands are not negotiable. And even if they were, there is no guarantee that North Korea, with its record of broken agreements, would give up nuclear weapons."
Self-Preservation or Blackmail?
"North Korea claims its nuclear capability serves as a deterrence to protect its own security," said the editors Japan's Asahi Shimbum on Monday. "But to our ears, this sounds like nothing more than a self-serving excuse. This is a nation that has committed acts of state terrorism, including the abduction of foreign nationals. It has repeatedly defied international rules. We suspect Pyongyang wanted to possess nuclear weapons so they could be used to blackmail the world into accommodating its every irrational whim and demand."
Last week, the Korea Times also described the nuclear test as "blackmail." But on Monday, the Seoul daily said self-protection might also have motivated Kim.
"If Colin Powell's autobiography is correct, however, the U.S. neocons' eventual goal is regime change in Pyongyang and the six-party meeting was just a pretense," said KT editors. "The isolationist regime's sense of the U.S. security threat may be overblown, but not entirely groundless. "
South Korea now must think twice about responding to the North's military provocations, says Chosun Ilbo, another Seoul daily.
"The North's nuclear test stripped 48 million South Koreans and 600,000 troops naked at once. Even if we were capable of independent defense at a cost of hundreds or thousands of trillions of won, the country wouldn't be able to deter a nuclear-armed North Korea. If the North repeats provocations in the West Sea, the South Korean president and military leadership would have to worry about the North's nuclear weapons before countering them."
Several pundits say North Korea could profit from a nuclear arsenal and not suffer economically for its defiance of the international community.
North Korea earned about $1 billion through sales of missiles and arms between 1997 and 2000, notes Ehsan Ahrari, a U.S. based defense consultant writing in the Asia Times. He cites a 2005 Congressional Research Service report designating the country as the world's 11th-largest supplier of arms to developing countries.
Kim "might well be thinking along the lines of A Q Khan, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program," Ahrari wrote. "Khan, by his own admission in 2004, at one time ran a nuclear bazaar aimed at proliferating nuclear weapons know-how to North Korea, Iran and Libya."
"North Korea's potential customers - ie, countries which have conducted business with Kim in terms of purchasing cruise and ballistic missiles - include Angola, Myanmar, Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Rwanda, Libya, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Uganda, Vietnam, Yemen, Zaire and Zimbabwe."
"Finally, it should be asked whether Pyongyang would be willing to sell a 'dirty bomb' to the likes of al-Qaeda," says Ahrari. "After all, both North Korea and al-Qaeda share an intense hatred for the lone superpower."
And despite heightened tensions with its southern neighbor, the Korea Herald says North Korea may not lose all lucrative ties with the south, whose government appears "hesitant to make any drastic changes."
"Seoul halted shipments of rice, fertilizer and cement to the North last week following the nuclear test," the Seoul daily reported Monday. "But President Roh held a meeting with the CEOs of firms engaged in inter-Korean businesses and listened to their strong appeal" to allow business to continue at Mount Geumgang, a popular tourist destination, and the Gaeseong Industrial Park. The two projects have netted North Korea hundreds of millions of dollars in hard currency, according to the Herald.
"So far, the government has maintained that these supplies of hard currency were necessary as part of 'expenditures for future reunification.' Now officials argue that an abrupt end to these remittances could provoke the North and trigger an increased security threat to the South."
"For the people of the Republic of Korea who have just experienced the worst 'provocation' from the North since the Korean War, the hardest thing for them to understand is the logic that continued aid to the North is necessary in order not to 'provoke' them," says the Herald.
There is nothing necessarily contradictory about these interpretations of Kim's motives. Blackmail, after all, can protect, intimidate and generate profit all at the same time.
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