The only place in the world where complete isolation gives you “the upper hand”

Even with nuclear inspectors kicked out of the country, it seems to foolish to contend, as Weekly Standard contributor Joseph Loconte did recently, epitomizing a bizarre assumption of many hawks, that North Korea has “the upper hand” in its relations with the world. This is a country “Hermit Kingdom” that has completely shut itself in from outside contact; that, as Loconte rightly notes, is willing to literally “starve its own people in order to feed its nuclear ambitions;” and whose propaganda is so absurd that it claims that a missile that sunk to the bottom of the Pacific is currently beaming revolutionary hymns in from outer space. In this light, kicking out nuclear inspectors and sputtering threats of ending the six-party talks in response to an entirely de rigueur Security Council condemnation are signs not of strength, but of paranoid desperation.

Paranoid desperation should be what we expect out of North Korea, particularly given the confusion of who will take over the country once Kim Jung-Il becomes too ill or dead even to be tackily photo-shopped into pictures. To be sure, the expulsion of UN nuclear inspectors is a setback. But as senior administration officials recognize, this is a “long” game, not a short one. Continuing the six-party talks remains the paramount concern, whose importance all parties, even the Chinese and the North Koreans, recognize is greater than that of a pro forma Security Council statement following the resolution-violating launch. And with China growing increasingly exasperated with its long-time “communist” ally North Korea, Pyongyang doesn’t have much that it can count on.

North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear plant — which persistent diplomacy succeeded in shutting down in in Bush’s second term — could not even be fully re-started for at least six to twelve months. In the meantime, the United States and Japan have put forth the names of companies to be targeted by the Security Council committee responsible for administering sanctions on North Korea. While it’s conventional to depict North Korea’s nuclear breakout as a ticking time bomb scenario, it’s really the country’s own leaders who are running out of time and credible options here.

With the climate so soured against it, any North Korean gambit to resume nuclear production seems designed to offer up bait to American hawks and split the United States off from the other six-party participants. China, not the United States, is the most important actor in this regional drama, and constructive Sino-American diplomacy here will bring far greater benefits than getting caught up in a war of rhetorical (let alone military) escalation with a feeble and desperate regime.

(image from flickr user leef_smith under a Creative Commons license)