By Mark Clifford Having actually been inside tortured North Korea, I'm no fan of the barbarous regime that's starving its own people. But one thing about Kim Jong Il and his crew continues to amaze me: They do a masterful job of playing a weak hand.
Think about it: This is a country of only about 20 million people that has been decimated by hunger for the past five years. It doesn't have enough fuel to run farm equipment or irrigation pumps or to make fertilizer, so the crops fail. With food in short supply, people spend much of their time in a desperate bid for survival. Foreign aid feeds one-third of the country. Yet, "Dear Leader" Kim, who was given little chance of running the country after his father died in 1994, has somehow held onto power.
ABDUCTION PLOT. Even by the weird standards of the Dear Leader, the last few weeks have been extraordinarily wacky. First came the unprecedented visit to Pyongyang by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in mid-September. News enough there.
But Kim shocked Koizumi by officially admitting what the world had long suspected -- that North Korea had abducted 11 Japanese from their homeland and spirited them away in submarines to North Korea to teach Japanese to North Koreans. Such a plot is something Dr. Evil might dream up in an Austin Powers movie.
Hard on the heels of the kidnapping confession, the North announced that it was setting up a special economic zone on its border with China and would appoint flamboyant Chinese entrepreneur Yang Bin as governor. Those plans went off the rails when Chinese authorities detained Yang on tax-evasion charges (see BW Online, 10/10/02, "North Korea: Kim's Keystone Kops Caper").
EMPTY PROMISES. The biggest bombshell yet detonated came last week when North Korea admitted it has been conducting a clandestine nuclear-weapons development program. The admission came after prodding from U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, the only senior official from the Bush Administration yet to visit Pyongyang. U.S. officials who went to Pyongyang with Kelly reportedly characterized the North Korean attitude as "belligerent."
The shocking admission has ratcheted up tension throughout Northeast Asia. North Korea and the U.S. came dangerously close to war in 1994 over the North's clandestine nuclear program. It promised to end that program, which it insisted was for civilian purposes only, in exchange for international food and energy assistance. So much for promises from the Dear Leader.
Is there a method to this madness? The dovish view is that this startling candor reflects a genuine desire by North Korea to put the past behind it and start engaging with the world as a normal country. That's the line being peddled most loudly by South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's team.
CALLING BUSH'S BLUFF? South Korea's Kim, an exponent of the "sunshine policy" designed to bring North Korea into the world community, would be understandably loath to admit that he has been taken for a ride by a nuclear bully. After all, if the North is now telling the truth, Pyongyang was forging ahead with its secret nuclear weapons program even as Kim Jong Il toasted Kim Dae Jung with an oversize glass of red wine in Pyongyang in June, 2000.
I take a darker view of Kim Jong Il's motives. Pyongyang is trying to call Washington's bluff. It knows that the Bush Administration is dangerously close to being overloaded. The war on terror has only just begun, and now President Bush is trying to marshal U.N. and allied support for a military operation aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein.
Here's what likely happened: North Korea got caught by U.S. intelligence, so it figured that this would be a pretty good time to 'fess up. Many who study North Korea think Bush grabbed the Dear Leader's attention when the U.S. President named the North as a charter member of Bush's "axis of evil." I wouldn't be surprised to find out that the weapons program is actually quite limited. Creating weapons-grade material out of enriched uranium is a time-consuming process.
TRICKY CURRENTS. Pyongyang might have thought it was better to come clean now and strike a deal -- which will no doubt involve some sort of food and energy aid (from South Korea and Japan, if not from the U.S.). Washington, too, could be inclined to negotiate. It has enough to contend with elsewhere, and having drawn a line in the sand, it cannot simply stand idly by and let North Korea flaunt the Bush Doctrine.
So a negotiated settlement will probably emerge -- one that won't be struck easily. There are some strong cross-currents here. Japan is talking with Pyongyang about diplomatic recognition, something that could result in a $10 billion windfall for North Korea from a Japan still eager to allay criticism about its record in colonizing the Korean peninsula. But the kidnapping revelations have spurred a strong backlash in Japan.
The nuclear revelations will also buffet South Korea's December presidential election. Conservative challenger Lee Hoi Chang, who has always been suspicious of Kim Dae Jung's rapprochement policy, could get a boost. But no matter who the next President of South Korea is, North Korea will probably get the aid and assistance it wants.
"MORE POWERFUL THINGS." The North has already made some bold moves to try to give its economy some life. It's courting international businesses to do deals in North Korea, and recently Kim sharply increased rice and corn prices as well as wages. He's gambling big-time that farmers will be encouraged to grow more crops and that consumers will have more to spend.
All in all though, Kim is starting to look like a gambler who's down to his last chips. Most Korea watchers think the Dear Leader wants dialogue, not confrontation with the U.S.
Here's what worries me: North Korea warned that, in addition to a nuclear program, it has "more powerful things as well," according to U.S. officials. Kim may be crazy -- or he could be crazy like a fox. If it's the latter, he may have more surprises to spring, and they could be downright dangerous.
BusinessWeek Korea Correspondent Moon Ihlwan also contributed to this article Asia Regional Editor Clifford lived in Seoul in 1987-92 and is the author of Troubled Tiger: Businessmen, Bureaucrats and Generals in South Korea (M.E. Sharpe). Follow his China Journal column every week, only on BW Online