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Kim Shows Up Obama's Soft Approach

Kim Shows Up Obama's Soft Approach

By Greg Sheridan - May 26, 2009

australianlogo.gifThe new nuclear test carried out by North Korea demonstrates the complete failure, so far, of US President Barack Obama's softly-softly diplomacy and willingness to start afresh with old enemies.

It may be that Obama's approach is well worth a try, but so far its yield is zero.

This is in great contrast to North Korea's nuclear weapons program. It yields a great deal indeed. There is every chance Pyongyang will succeed in all its ambitions with its latest nuclear test.

North Korea's first nuclear test, in October 2006, brought president George W. Bush back to the negotiating table.

North Korea's ageing and apparently unwell dictator, Kim Jong-il, has been keen to get Obama's attention since the new US President took office.

Last month, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile that travelled across Japan before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

Obama reacted coolly. Pyongyang has now gone a step further with its second ever nuclear test, which serves multiple aims for North Korea.

By all reports, Kim suffered a stroke last August. There are very good reports that he is now consolidating the power structure, and the line of succession, around him. The reflex of every North Korean institution in this context will be to demonstrate ultra-loyalty and ultra-nationalism. This means the internal atmosphere in North Korea would contribute directly to the decision to conduct such a test.

However, the technical and military aspects of this test should not be overlooked. Last month's missile test was far more successful than the North's previous long-range missile test. Similarly, this nuclear test has, on early reports, produced a far greater yield than the 2006 test did.

That means Pyongyang is getting much better at both missile technology and nuclear weapons technology. It is clear Pyongyang wants to possess a full suite of nuclear weapons and wants to be accepted as a nuclear weapons state.

Analysts believe Pyongyang possesses five to 10 nuclear devices. The latest test appears to have been a plutonium bomb. That means Pyongyang has used a substantial section of its nuclear fuel in this test. However, the record is that North Korea keeps turning out to have more nuclear weapons and nuclear technology than Western intelligence assesses at any given moment.

It may be that the highly enriched uranium program, which the North boasted of in talks with American negotiators several years ago, has also yielded fuel for nuclear weapons.

The truth is, we just do not know. But clearly North Korea is moving steadily up the nuclear weapons food chain.

The greatest danger from the North's weapons lies in proliferation. It has shown itself willing to sell weapons and nuclear technology to all-comers in the past. Israel bombed a nuclear reactor in Syria the North Koreans had sold to the Syrians.

But the idea Pyongyang would never use a nuclear weapon cannot be absolutely guaranteed. Everyone assesses Pyongyang to be a rational actor, but rational actors can make colossal miscalculations. This is partly why everyone in the international system over recent years has been trying to reassure the North Koreans that they will not be subject to any pre-emptive military strike. Indeed, the US and its allies do not even seek regime change in North Korea, merely less destabilising behaviour.

North Korea is rational enough, but its rationality occurs within a framework so distinctive and self-enclosed that it does not allow outsiders to provide any effective incentives and disincentives. It is highly likely that within a few months at the most, Obama will concede to Pyongyang's most recent demand - which is for one-on-one negotiations between North Korea and the US, and the effective sidelining of the Six Party talks process.

Although it is absolutely clear Pyongyang will never give up its nuclear weapons, it is quite likely that process will culminate in another US-North Korea deal, which will provide economic aid in exchange for North Korea agreeing to give up its nuclear activities.

Pyongyang may well be able to sell its Yongbyon reactor to the Americans for a third time, only to continue with nuclear activities at other sites and to re-open Yongbyon when the new agreement inevitably collapses. If events follow that pattern, Pyongyang's actions will not only have been rational, but also remarkably effective as state policy.

In the meantime, the Chinese will prevent the UN from taking any serious action and will not itself prevail upon North Korea to change in fundamentals.

All the time, Obama's hope - and Kevin Rudd's hope too - of global nuclear disarmament will grow more distant, and his open hand of friendship will be met with a spit in the face.

Greg Sheridan is foreign editor of The Australian.

This article first appeared in The Australian.

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