Mr. Kim's scam

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

SUPPOSE THAT North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il decided last January to try luring the Obama administration into the same lucrative and fraudulent transaction his regime pulled off with the two previous U.S. presidents. In that case, Mr. Kim may feel he's getting close to executing another sting.

The scam goes like this: Pyongyang raises tension by firing off missiles, ejecting inspectors from its nuclear facilities, testing bombs and promising to produce more. Then it turns conciliatory, suggesting it might be willing to freeze its nuclear program and even begin to dismantle it in exchange for economic and political concessions. Next it begins talks, collecting as much in cash and diplomatic recognition as it can from Washington and its Asian allies. Finally, it breaks off the process before it has taken any irreversible step to give up its weapons or the means to produce them.

Mr. Kim has already run through the first two phases of his scheme in the past nine months. He conducted a nuclear test, fired the usual missiles and is reportedly close to restarting plutonium production at Yongbyon -- the same plant that both the Clinton and Bush administrations paid him to shut. Earlier this month he won the endorsement of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao for his demand that any renewal of the "six-party" negotiations on North Korean disarmament be preceded by bilateral talks between North Korea and the Obama administration.

Such bilateral talks are a perennial objective of Pyongyang, because they exclude South Korea and Japan -- which the regime wants to snub -- as well as China, the only country with decisive leverage over Mr. Kim. Once the Obama administration shows up, Mr. Kim said, he will expect "progress" before he agrees to reopen the multilateral forum. That, of course, means bribes by the Obama administration, whether in the form of easing sanctions or steps toward U.S. recognition of his regime. Should the administration fail to deliver, Mr. Kim will blame the United States for blocking the six-party process -- just as he successfully cast the Bush administration as the obstacle before it caved to his demands.

The Obama administration says it is well aware of what Mr. Kim is up to. To its credit, it has been slow to respond to his demand for bilateral talks, though preliminary contacts between U.S. and North Korean diplomats began last weekend. A State Department spokesman said that if higher-level talks occur, North Korea would be expected to reiterate its previous commitments to dismantle its nuclear program and agree to a return to the six-party forum.

Officials add that they have been consulting closely with China and that the two governments agree that this time around, North Korea must take irreversible steps before it receives rewards -- a message that was stated publicly by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week. Does that mean that Mr. Kim will get nothing from the Obama administration at a bilateral meeting, other than the meeting itself? If so, that would be a step toward preventing another easy sting.

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