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A clown provocateur

North Korea's Kim uses crises to maintain power. We should not rise to the latest bait.

July 07, 2006|Edward N. Luttwak | EDWARD N. LUTTWAK is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

IT IS PERFECTLY clear why the North Korean dictatorship of Kim Jong Il tests its ballistic missiles after slow and elaborate preparations easily photographed by satellites. Kim is trying his best to attract attention by being deliberately provocative, which is very important to the world's most grotesque dictatorship.

The focus of Pyongyang's propaganda is the worship of Kim, depicted as the world's greatest leader -- whose every statement and deed is of global significance and whose political and economic genius has made North Korea into a universally envied paradise.

That picture collides with the reality of North Korean misery and periodic starvation, and it is in spectacular contrast to South Korean affluence. But at least the regime can claim global importance whenever the outside world loudly reacts to its provocations.

Moreover, past furors over North Korean nuclear programs led to negotiations through which the regime made gains, a great deal of attention from U.S. Japanese leaders and large amounts of money from South Korea -- whose rulers have repeatedly attempted to buy peace, even at the cost of subsidizing the dictatorship that oppresses their fellow Koreans. Obviously, having learned that it pays to be provocative, the North Korean regime is doing it again, this time by test-launching ballistic missiles.

What is hard to understand is why the American and Japanese governments have allowed themselves to be manipulated again, by responding to the provocation exactly as Kim would have wanted. There were strident but impotent warnings of unspecified sanctions -- almost entirely useless against a regime that exports almost nothing and imports even less, and for which international isolation is no threat but rather the very key to survival. There were even hollow threats by pundits in the United States of a preventive air attack to destroy the ballistic missiles on their exposed platforms.

All this sound and fury is being duly relayed and even amplified in the regime's internal propaganda, to show its captive population how the world's strongest and richest countries tremble before North Korea and its mighty leader.

The obvious alternative for the U.S., Japan and all other responsible powers is to defeat the North Korean gambit by a combination of silence and low-key denigration. There is plenty of justification for any amount of that.

Kim is a prize buffoon whose threats and pronouncements should never be acknowledged, let alone contested in any way.

As for his ballistic missiles, it would be helpful and properly reassuring to the American and Japanese public to circulate descriptions of what they really are: crude North Korean copies and enlargements of the Soviet Scud family of missiles, which was itself a 1950s upgrade of German V-2 technology, with the same liquid-fuel propulsion that requires lengthy pre-launch preparations (during which the missiles can easily be destroyed) and gyroscopic guidance that has median inaccuracies measured in miles rather than yards. That is the reason why the Soviet ballistic missile program didn't begin to succeed until the Scud-type tchnology was abandoned in the 1960s.

True, North Korea has probably assembled one or more fission bombs of the Hiroshima type, but they could not be fitted inside the nose cone of any North Korean ballistic missile with any expectation that they will detonate over the intended target, rather than on the launch pad. In fact, they might not detonate at all, because North Korea has never conducted an explosive nuclear test and is generally believed to lack the technology to simulate one.

Anyone is certainly entitled to be alarmed by North Korean nuclear weapons -- even if very few, relatively small and of uncertain detonation. A regime of Pyongyang's ilk should not even possess firearms, let alone fission bombs. But this is not a new menace, and nothing is added to its gravity by the testing of ballistic missiles.

Besides, there is no justification for confusing the verbal ferocity of North Korean propaganda with any actual intention to go to war. The regime is always described as bellicose, but its armed forces were last engaged in combat in 1953 and conspicuously have failed to act against South Korea even when there were opportunities to do so.

Nor would any worthwhile negotiating opportunities be lost if North Korean provocations were simply ignored.

By now, after many years of futile diplomacy of every possible kind, it should be obvious that the regime is interested in only the incidental benefits it receives in the course of negotiations, not in reaching any actual agreement that it means to keep.

After all, to limit its nuclear, ballistic missile or any other weapons program by treaty with the United States and its allies would fatally undermine Pyongyang's entire political stance of brave militancy against a hostile world, and remove the justification for isolating its population, without which the regime could not survive.

Next time, let silence be the response, along with a bit of ridicule.

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