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On Point

Mr. Kim's Neighborhood

by Austin Bay
May 14, 2003

Plot elements in a schlock spy thriller? Actually, they're North Korea's premier exports, the tawdry trade items of a poverty-wracked nation whose ruling clique lives quite well on the profits of drugs, weapons, bribery and plain old criminal fraud.

At its iron and evil core, Kim Jong Il's North Korean regime is a criminal syndicate with a million-man army and now crude nuclear weapons.

It's also a frightened clique, whose latest nuclear tantrum has nudged its Asian neighbors closer to accepting the U.S. view that the regime cannot be reformed and a "containment and negotiation" strategic approach to Pyongyang simply gives the regime more time to deploy weapons of mass destruction. South Korea's "sunshine policy" of "generous engagement" was an utter failure, merely a cash cow for the North Korean regime.

North Korea's heroin escapades demonstrate the regime's calculated depravity -- and why it ultimately has no place in 21st century Asia.

For years, the rumor mill had North Korean diplomats meeting embassy expenses by dealing drugs. The amounts were supposedly small -- a kilo or two slipped in via diplomatic pouch, the proceeds going to keep the lights on and fund clandestine operations.

On April 20, an Australian special operations unit seized a heroin-loaded North Korean freighter in the Tasman Sea off the Australian coast. A Washington Post story noted the freighter, the Pong Su, had expanded fuel tanks for long-distance operations and sophisticated communications gear. Get cranking on that novel -- she's a spy ship turned into a specialized drug delivery vessel.

The Pong Su bust exposes drug trafficking as North Korean state policy. While other Asian nations invest in education and high-tech manufacturing, North Korea's Marxists put scarce resources into smuggling smack. Heroin sales provide just enough cash to provide regime bigwigs with plush digs and, one supposes, further nuclear research.

Crime pays for Pyongyang. For a decade, the NoKo cartel ran a successful bribery scam. Pay us off and we won't make bombs was the deal Pyongyang offered the Clinton administration in 1994. Washington supplied heavy fuel and light water reactors. The United States hoped that meeting North Korea's basic energy and food requirements would ultimately reduce belligerency.

North Korea never canned its nuclear program, and last year the Bush administration caught the cheats.

Now, Pyongyang's mobsters are into extortion. Unless Washington ponies up cash, they threaten to sell nuclear weapons to interested buyers. Saddam's no longer in the market, but Al Qaeda is.

In the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Pyongyang's strident threats sound, well, a bit too strident. While many military analysts believe North Korea's would resist a hypothetical U.S. military attack, Kim's dictatorship knows it's vulnerable. Kim saw what "out of nowhere" quick-reaction U.S. precision airstrikes did to the Iraqi leadership.

Now the regime needs to know it's strident threats have backfired.

Japan, the presumed soft touch in the blackmail scam, is now discussing improving its offensive military capacity, and that could mean Japanese nuclear weapons. No one in Asia wants a militarily resurgent Japan, particularly China.

If the SARS virus worries Beijing, you can bet Shanghai those worries are small change compared to the political and military significance of a Japanese bomb, or a high-tech Japanese Army and Air Force prepared for Asian expeditionary operations.

China is playing an important role in current North Korean negotiations, but it must do more. If we're to avoid a nuclear disaster in Asia, the United States can't be the only cop on the beat. Beijing doesn't want Japan wearing a sheriff's badge -- that means Beijing has to act like a responsible regional power.

China sent North Korea a message when it briefly cut off oil supplies, but brief doesn't cut it with these drug lords. Kim's regime says imposing an embargo on North Korea is an act of war. But a "slow war" is already being waged, with heroin an arrow in Pyongyang's arsenal. The United States is at war with Al Qaeda, and North Korea has threatened to sell Al Qaeda nukes. Beijing knows this.

A "python" embargo -- an all embracing squeeze on Kim's regime -- is rapidly becoming the best option for ending Pyongyang's crime spree. A real python embargo means no goods leave, no goods enter, by land, sea or air.

It's time for Beijing to decide if it's going to help police the neighborhood.

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