Yesterday, President Obama returned from a three-day trip to Seoul in which he met with leaders from South Korea, China, and Russia to discuss nuclear security and proliferation.
Now, in any discussion regarding this matter, there are a number of topics that will inevitably be raised, including how to draw down the nuclear arsenals of the Cold War powers, how to ensure that nuclear weapons don’t fall into the hands of terrorists, and what to do about North Korea. All three are extremely pressing issues, but the latter clearly overshadowed the other two.
North Korea, formally the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is one of three non-NPT states that possess nuclear weapons (the other two being India and Pakistan), as it demonstrated to the world in October 2006 when it conducted an underground nuclear weapons test. But having a nuclear weapon doesn’t give you much bargaining power unless you have a way of deploying it via a missile, which is exactly what the North Koreans have been working on building for the past several years.
This, of course, is a very bad thing. A North Korea capable of firing a rocket with nuclear warheads strapped to it is a benefit to no one. The U.S. has tried several times to halt the DPRK’s nuclear development program, only to have Kim Jong Il, when he was still alive, back out in an attempt to milk more concessions out of the American government.
In the latest attempt to squelch North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Washington brokered a deal with Pyongyang at the end of last month in which it agreed to allow international inspectors to monitor its nuclear facilities and to suspend its plans to launch a rocket in return for some 240,000 metric tons of food. Predictably enough, North Korea is now saying it’s going to carry out the rocket launch anyway, and is going to do it in about two or three weeks’ time.
The rocket is supposed to carry a satellite into orbit, though attempts in 2006 and 2009 to do the same resulted once in the rocket blowing up seconds after liftoff and the second time with it plunging into the ocean. In any event, if this next launch is successfully carried out, everyone loses.
The biggest losers might just be–as they have almost always been–the civilian population of North Korea. They desperately need the food aid that Washington has promised them, and they’re not going to get it if their government once again goes back on its promise. North Korea is perhaps the worst place to live on earth, with nearly everyone slowly dying of starvation and suffering from malnourishment. For this reason, North Koreans are about three or four inches shorter than their fellow peninsula-dwellers to the south. Some two million North Koreans are estimated to have died in the 1990s because of widespread famine and natural disasters.
North Korea has always done nothing but disservices to its own people and to the world at large. President Bush was unable to prevent it from developing nuclear technology, which it subsequently shared with another equally unstable regime in Syria. More so than any of his myriad other failures, that may prove to be the most catastrophic.