- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2004

Saddam Hussein’s regime thrived on the U.N.’s corrupted Oil for Food program. A tour of Saddam’s Baghdad digs led former CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks to quip the scam amounted to little more than “oil for palaces.”

The United Nations hasn’t begun to account for the stolen billions pumped into Ba’athist bank accounts and the toney coffers of European luxury goods suppliers. Oil for Food kept Saddam and his killers living like Hollywood stars while Shi’ite children starved.

A similar evil game of elite ritz amidst mass starvation continues in East Asia, except a wag might call North Korea’s shakedown “Food for Fallout.”

While Kim Jong-il’s strange little Stalinist clique trumpets the development of nuclear weapons, 2.7 million of its citizens face imminent starvation. Last week, the World Food Program cut food aid to North Korea because of a lack of foreign donations.

The second round of multilateral “six-nation” negotiations intended to remove North Korea’s nuclear fangs as well as resolve what is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis begins next month. North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States are engaged in a dangerous diplomatic waltz. The only certainties surrounding the negotiations are Japanese and South Korean fear, increasing Chinese and American frustration, and North Korean brinkmanship.

North Korea’s stone-broke police state is a sad reminder of the Soviet Union’s Cold War legacy of guns, guns and more guns, but damn little butter. In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union attempted nuclear blackmail in Europe by deploying mobile ballistic missiles. The goal was to crack NATO. The political blackmail bid failed when the Reagan administration countered by deploying American theater ballistic and cruise missiles to Europe. NATO didn’t crack, and the Cold War’s end-game began in earnest. The failure of the Soviet hard-liners’ bullyboy strategy gave modernizers (like Mikhail Gorbachev) a chance. Their glasnost and perestroika policies recognized communism’s grotesque failure to provide butter. They couldn’t reform communism or save the U.S.S.R. However, the Cold War ended with a whimper, not a nuclear bang.

South Korea had hoped for a similar break in the North Korean regime, but if there’s a modernizer in Pyongyang he’s in prison or awaiting execution. Kim Jong-il is running an extortion racket. His North Korean totalitarian police state is a totalitarian crime state. Various criminal enterprises ensure its communist elites have plenty to eat. In 2003, Australia seized a North Korean freighter packed with heroin. The ship sported expanded fuel tanks for long-distance operations. The bust proved smuggling smack is a North Korean state policy, providing cash for Mr. Kim’s caviar.

Nuclear weapons, of course, are Mr. Kim’s big stick. The scam goes like this: Pay us off, and we won’t make bombs. That was the deal Pyongyang offered the Clinton administration in 1994. The United States hoped that meeting North Korea’s basic energy and food requirements would ultimately reduce belligerency. However, North Korea made bombs anyway.

North Korea calls its latest negotiating gambit “the order of simultaneous action.” Pyongyang will “renounce nuclear intentions” if Washington resumes food aid. The United States must also provide “written security assurances.” This is still “pay us, then we behave.”

The shtick is no longer working quite as slick as it once did. Saddam’s collapse is one reason — America after September 11, 2001, is in the regime-change business. That fact certainly spurred Libya’s recent nuclear fold. Stories circulate Kim Jong-il believes missile-armed American Predator unmanned aerial vehicles are stalking him.

If Mr. Kim casts a wary eye to the sky, that may promote flexibility, as the diplomats say.

There are other pressures. North Korea once served Chinese and Russian purposes, providing a saber-rattler to shake the United States and Japan. Times have changed. Russia and China have extensive trade relations with Japan and South Korea. A Chinese Army now sits on the Korean border, tasked with stopping the refugees fleeing Mr. Kim. Japanese fear is producing changes in Japanese military doctrine. Japan is deploying troops in Iraq. It’s another sign of Japanese defense muscle-flexing. No one in Asia wants a militarily resurgent Japan, particularly China.

The six-way waltz is becoming a five-man conga line, with North Korea dancing —and starving — alone.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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