War Stories

Kim’s Catastrophe

Three cheers for the North Korean missile test!

Kim Jong-il

George Bush’s luck hasn’t run out just yet.

North Korea’s Fourth of July missile fizzle is the biggest diplomatic break that the president has caught all term—and the biggest setback (“catastrophe” wouldn’t be too strong a word) that his most-loathed nemesis, Kim Jong-il, has suffered in years.

For several weeks, a Taepodong-2 long-range missile had stood on a test site’s launchpad, while leaders of the international community—not just the United States, but Japan, Russia, South Korea, even China—urged Pyongyang’s “Dear Leader” not to aggravate tensions by launching it.

Yesterday, after our own fireworks celebrations had died down, Kim thumbed his nose and launched his missile—only to see it sputter and crash a mere 35 seconds after liftoff. (A handful of short-range missiles, mainly Scuds, were tested successfully, but they were of little concern, demonstrating nothing remotely new.)

If you’re going to defy all your enemies and allies, you’d better come away from the gamble with added strength and leverage. Kim Jong-il emerges from the Taepodong disaster with his chips spent and a pair of deuces on the table.

Once Kim hoisted that rocket onto the launchpad, the scenario could have played out three ways. First, he could have bowed to the international pressure, drained the liquid fuel, rolled the rocket back to the warehouse, and requested direct talks with Washington in exchange for his “good-faith” measures. Bush, who has long avoided direct talks, would have been in a spot.

Second, he could have tested the missile with successful results. His friends and foes would have been furious with him, but in the end they would have had to face the fact that North Korea now had not only a nuclear bomb or two but the potential, someday, to pack a warhead on a missile and fire it wherever he wanted.

In either of those two scenarios, Kim would have come out of the game ahead.

Third, he could have tested the missile and watched it fail. That would have been the worst possible outcome, and that’s what happened yesterday. It’s like a bank robber who gets everyone’s attention by firing his gun at the ceiling—and a little flag with the word “Bang!” pops out of the barrel. The only effect is that he’s no longer taken seriously.

More cartoons about nuclear weapons

Kim Jong-il, these past few years, has adroitly played his otherwise miserable hand because of two cards that everyone believes he holds—nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Yesterday’s dud raises the possibility that the missile card’s a bluff, that there may be (as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland) “no there there.” The next tempting step is to wonder about the nukes. We know that he has enough plutonium to build some bombs, but has he built them? Can he build them?

From a strictly objective viewpoint, the test would have meant little, even had it succeeded. In Cold War days, the United States and the Soviet Union would each test-launch a new intercontinental ballistic missile 20 times before deeming it “operational.” The North Koreans, until yesterday, hadn’t fired a long-range missile since 1998, and no serious analyst thinks they can make a nuclear weapon small enough to fit inside a missile’s nose cone.

But dealing with North Korea is even more of a Kabuki dance than other forums of diplomacy. As Scott Snyder notes in his brilliant book Negotiating on the Edge, Kim Jong-il—like his father, Kim Il-Sung, before him—views his nation as a “guerrilla state” and his position in the world as “a guerrilla fighter who has nothing to lose and yet faces the prospect of losing everything.” Another family chestnut is that North Korea is like “a shrimp among whales” and that survival is best insured by weaving a perpetual backdrop of “drama and catastrophe” to distract the whales or, better still, play them off one another.

In that sense, a successful missile test would have raised alarm bells among North Korea’s neighbors. At first, they would have voiced sharp criticism of Kim for such provocative behavior. Ultimately, though, they would have stepped up their pressure on President Bush to engage North Korea in face-to-face talks before the danger worsened.

In the same sense, a failed missile test bolsters Bush’s disinclination to hold talks at all. “The Taepodong obviously was a failure—that tells you something about capabilities,” Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, has been quoted as telling reporters last night. Though Hadley didn’t say as much, the implication is clear: Why should Bush make any concessions to Kim Jong-il when, as it turns out, Kim has nothing up his sleeve to trade back?

Pyongyang’s reaction to the furor has been a studied nonchalance. “The missile launch is an issue that is entirely within our sovereignty,” a foreign ministry official said. “No one has the right to dispute it. … We are not bound by any agreement.”

The statement is true but beside the point. The worrisome thing about the prospect of North Korean nukes isn’t so much the nukes as the North Korean. The missile launch confirms the worst fears about Kim Jong-il—not merely that he’s a guerrilla diplomat who takes wild gambles but that sometimes the gambles go awry.

The Chinese in particular had been urging Kim Jong-il to back down from the launch and return to the six-party nuclear talks that he’s been boycotting for several months. (He’s demanded direct talks with the United States as a precondition for returning; the Chinese and others have suggested that such talks might take place but only after he returns.) Now Kim has made the Chinese look foolish, and they don’t like that.

What happens next is worthy of nail-biting. American and Japanese officials are pushing for economic sanctions. The Chinese are reluctant; they don’t want to push Kim too hard, for fear that his regime might collapse and 10 million North Koreans rush across the border into eastern China to escape the impending chaos and starvation. Kim has shrewdly played on this fear, too—another case of his knack for turning weakness into strength, until yesterday.

Right now, it’s a good bet that some North Korean missile designers are twisting by their thumbs, if not worse. It may also be—this is sheer speculation—that some North Korean military officers are getting nervous about Dear Leader’s latest “harebrained scheme.” Is Vice President Dick Cheney rubbing his hands in anticipation that a coup—internal “regime change”—might be afoot? It is extremely doubtful, in any case, that some Bush higher-up is thinking today about new ways to approach the Korean stalemate diplomatically. Kim Jong-il shook the dice and rolled craps. If negotiations do get back on the agenda, he’ll have to make the first move.