Apparently, after U.N. sanctions on North Korea only created more intransigence and bellicosity from the regime of Kim Jong Il, a pair of Chinese diplomats went to Pyongyang this week and brought about a change of attitude. In stark contrast to the second test they were threatening earlier in the week, the Chinese visit brought about an expression of 'regret' from the North Koreans (in other words, they said they are sorry.)
What exactly the Chinese said is a matter of speculation, but it is clear that they command the respect and attention of Kim Jong Il. Whereas we do not.
Why is this? Well, there are a number of reasons. And there is one reason I will say is not the fault of the Bush administration. It is simply the existence of China, and the fact of history that is the Korean war; the last time we sent an army in to overrun North Korea, we ended up in a war with China and after several years of fruitless attrition Dwight Eisenhower wisely saw the benefit of making peace (pity the Republican President we have today doesn't have Dwight's understanding of war). I wrote in a July post called The price of making threats you can't back up,
the Chinese would no more put up today with an American army overrunning North Korea than they did in 1950. The North Koreans feel emboldened by this fact, and sometimes act like a feisty tyke, standing in front of big brother and shouting insults, secure in the knowlege that no matter how much big brother may hate it, he won't let you give junior the pop in the mouth that he so richly deserves.
Well, maybe not, but apparently after this latest outrage, big brother felt it was time to put his foot down. So the North Koreans have abruptly changed their attitude. We will see how long that lasts.
However, this begs the question, even with the military option effectively neutered, why are we so toothless? China isn't going to invade North Korea either, and the North Koreans know that. So why do they respect China but not us?
One reason is trade. By far their biggest trading partner is China. And it probably will continue to be that way no matter what else happens. However, as I wrote in a post last week,
As I've said before, what brought down the Soviet Union was not our thousands of nuclear missiles, which remained unlaunched (as did theirs). It was the desire of their people to be done with the regime, and to have more of what we have.
Consumerism is a strong force. I've said it in at least a couple of other recent posts, but it seems to me that if we traded with the North Koreans, especially consumer goods, they would experience a revival of the hopes and dreams of their own people-- and that is an even stronger force. Why conservatives, of all people, can't recognize the best weapon we have-- capitalism, and be ready to use it, is beyond me.
Not only would it make the threat of sanctions actually realistic if we actually had something that we could quit trading with them, but more importantly if we traded with them Kim Jong Il would suddenly be confronted with the one threat to his regime that he has no weapon that can defend against-- the aspirations of his people. Mikhail Gorbachev, Nikolai Cseaucescu, Erich Honecker-- what good did all their tanks, all their armies or all those Soviet nukes do when their people got tired of communism and wanted something better? But as long as we isolate Kim Jong Il, we can't really expect him to behave-- We've thrown all our boots at him, and we have no boots left to throw at him anymore. In the meantime, he gains power because he can blame all of his or the regime's failings on the Americans, and use that to ruthlessly crush any dissent.
A third reason we are toothless can be laid directly at the feet of George Bush. As I wrote in the first post I linked above, it really is about "The price of making threats you can't back up."
In this context, President Bush's description of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as the 'axis of evil' which would require 'regime change' was pretty stupid. Threatening a country and then attacking them, as he did with Iraq, is inconsistent with American values and what we stand for, and I've blogged quite a bit about Iraq. But threatening someone who you don't have the means to carry out the threat is worse-- by first publically announcing that it had a nuclear program, then withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, announcing that it actually has nukes, threatening to shoot down our spy planes just before the Iraq war started (Bush's response was to ground the spy planes, which rewarded North Korea directly for making that threat), and now with the missile launches, they continue with one provocation after another after another, by which they hope to (and have) exposed America as a 'paper tiger,' and Bush as an emperor with no clothes. Far better to not have issued a threat than to be caught drawing a line, and then not being able to do anything when someone steps over it.
George Bush has for the last couple of years practically dared the North Koreans to cross the next line by promising 'serious consequences' each time they do. That would be fine if we were in a position to back the threats up, but instead by making the threats Bush has played the proverbial emperor and was wearing no clothes when they called him on it (yeah, I know it was a sanctions bill that was supposed to have 'teeth,' but I doubt if it worried the North Koreans much, at least until the Chinese diplomats came over.) Given Bush's initial description of North Korea as part of the 'axis of evil' (a speech that the North Koreans cited when they first made public their nuclear program) he has since ticked off most of the world, so that the North Koreans love to be the ones pulling his tail.
In contrast, some other Americans, notably Bill Richardson, have proven that they have the ability to reason with the North Koreans-- and that begins with actually sitting down and talking to them, instead of making threats over the airwaves. And it might be nice to not have to depend on the Chinese in the future.