Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Ban and the Bomb
Talk to Pyongyang, not at it
By Ian Williams
Knowing North Korea's penchant for symbolism, one cannot help wondering whether the timing of its apparent nuclear test was meant to rain on Ban Ki-moon's party as the United Nations secretary general-designate. As it was, the business of selecting a South Korean as the world's secular pope was rushed through with almost unseemly brusqueness by the UN Security Council so it could discuss Kim Jong-il's diversion.
The General Assembly will probably confirm Ban's appointment, predictably with no dissent, on Friday. It is probably too late now for his Sunshine Policy of engagement with North Korea to be held against him.
But it has been noticed that John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, expressed complete and almost proprietary satisfaction with Ban's appointment. It is almost reassuring to note that the US envoy's soulmates in the conservative Heritage Foundation had expressed doubts about Ban's suitability, citing Seoul's reluctance "to confront North Korea on human rights or its belligerence and nuclear ambitions" and alleging that "Ban has said little about UN reform, and there are questions about his commitment to it. The current government in South Korea campaigned in 2004 with strong anti-United States rhetoric." 
Even so, the Security Council agreed a unanimous statement condemning North Korea's action, and even more predictably showed signs of deadlock as the various parties put forward their widely differing tactics for resolving the issue.
Last week, Bolton had said the UN was not the "alpha and omega" of such disputes. As one of the cartographers of the "axis of evil" that lumped Iraq, Iran and North Korea together, he should know. It is indeed axiomatic that virtually no one is happy about Pyongyang's test, but it is entirely legal, and one of the reasons for that is the United States' and Bolton's diehard fight against improving the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime.
North Korea finally opted out of the NPT in 2002, which it was perfectly entitled to do, but would not have been if the treaty had been strengthened, as most delegates wanted. Bolton, who does not believe in international treaties that bind the US, or for that matter Israel, frustrated any attempts to strengthen the NPT regime. The administration of US President George W Bush has been trying for years to inch toward renewed nuclear testing, regardless of the NPT agreement to reduce and run down existing nuclear-weapons stocks.
Nonetheless, for once - perhaps it is the stopped-clock syndrome - Bush is entirely correct. Although there are more than a few degrees of hypocrisy involved in existing and new nuclear powers who have never signed the NPT, the entire world community, committed as most nations are to the non-proliferation regime, is upset at Monday's explosion.
And as the International Court ruled over Libyan sanctions, Security Council decisions override any existing international law, so in the unlikely event of a strong resolution emerging, North Korea is in deep trouble.
The comrades in Pyongyang are certainly not the most cosmopolitan types, so one could almost forgive them for misreading signals. Israel has 200-plus nuclear warheads, and gets billions of dollars of free money, with the diplomatic equivalent of a Monopoly game "get out of jail free" card. Pakistan gets lots of support, even as its prime nuclear scientist is proved to have been disseminating bomb kits in the Muslim world. India explodes a bomb, and Washington subsequently rewards it with an offer of civilian nuclear technology. What conclusion is Kim supposed to reach from this?
For once, Bolton's unilateralist supporters who traditionally argue that the UN should not put obstacles in the way of US diplomacy are right, at least in the cases of North Korea and Iran. This is not really the UN's business. Both regimes are trying to get the US to talk to them, and the UN, the six-party talks and similar devices are simply fig leaves to cover up the United States' refusal to engage in diplomacy. It cannot bring itself to say publicly that it has no intention of making war on them.
One could admire the principles, if they were consistently applied. However, welcoming President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan as a visiting anti-terrorist hero, while maintaining relations with Uzbekistan, suggests that there is more than a little wiggle room in the Bush administration's principles.
Former US ambassador to China James Lilly has a constructive suggestion that would appease the arcane sensibilities on both sides. He suggests that Washington should send an envoy to Pyongyang to persuade them to restart the six-party talks.
I can cap it with my own modest proposal. Washington should send Oliver North of Contra-scandal fame to Iran and North Korea, with or without a Bible and key-shaped cake, and talk seriously to them about matters of mutual interest, such as making sure that weapons go to US-licensed freedom fighters. The Israelis can provide airlift and service agreements as they did for Irangate, and that will hush any objectors in the US Congress.
If this seems a little far-fetched, one has to consider the alternatives. Perhaps the only thing worse than an overtly nuclear North Korea is the consequences of letting the Bush administration provoke Pyongyang with a naval blockade or other attacks on sovereignty.
It is in everyone's interest to let the North Korean regime have a soft landing rather than take actions to confirm its paranoia. In any contest between the approach of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and the Ban-China approach, the latter wins hands down.
1. Electing the Next United Nations Secretary General Is an Opportunity to Press for UN Reform, Heritage Foundation, July 25.