Friday, July 7, 2006

With his Howdy Doody haircut and secondhand leisure suit that he found in the discard bin at Value Village, North Korea’s Dear Leader looks like a dork. But dorks have their day.

Kim Jong-il held his own Fourth of July celebration, loosing several intercontinental ballistic missiles toward several of his enemies and inflicting severe heartburn in important places. The missiles, so far as anyone in the West knows (or is willing to say), carried no warheads, nuclear or otherwise, and they all plopped harmlessly into the sea, like the balls dribbling out of the mouths of comic-book cannon. North Korean pride took a fall.

But nobody gets more bang from a dud than the Dear Leader, who sent statesmen in the important capitals of the world scrambling for something to placate him with. The betting here is that it will be with carrots, not sticks. The Dear Leader, like a lot of spoilt children, knows how to throw a tantrum.

President Bush stayed on the telephone for much of the day yesterday, talking to his counterparts in Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo and Seoul, trying to find something they could all agree to say. At day’s end, there was no indication that he succeeded. “My message was that we want to solve this problem diplomatically, and the best way to solve this problem diplomatically is for all of us to be working in concert … We have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”

A policeman’s lot, particularly the lot of the policeman for the world, is not a happy one. Neither Russia nor China, either of which could speak most forcefully to Pyongyang, are eager to help. Vladimir Putin, smarting from having to explain that his impulsive belly-kissing of strange small children is not really child molesting, and Chinese President Hu Jintao, still smarting from the Bronx cheers he got on his recent trip to Washington, are eager to exploit the Dear Leader’s latest ploy for whatever advantage they can reap at the West’s expense.

Mr. Putin, conceding the concern felt most keenly in Washington and Japan, told George W. not to let his emotional reaction “drown out common sense” — nothing like, say, the Russian response to the taking of hostages at that theater in Moscow. President Hu, forced to choose between a nutty Korean on his border with nuclear weapons and the Americans with hegemony in the Pacific, sometimes feels like a nut and sometimes he doesn’t. This time it was a nut. The South Koreans, who ultimately have the most to lose, have decided that the way to deal with the dorks and nuts in the north is to love ‘em to rationality. President Roh Moo-hyun wants to continue with his policy of unrestrained appeasement.

You can’t blame the Dear Leader for thinking he can exact appeasement from everyone else, too. The Iranians are getting by with a lot. So is Syria. Kim found Bill Clinton a sucker for his shell game, and the scam — promise everything and deliver more provocations — may work even better with George W., who is up to his hips in alligators. The president’s top national security adviser, Steve Hadley, says, “It’s hard to get a sense of what [Kim Jong-il] thinks is to be achieved” by his latest provocation, but if Mr. Hadley and the White House think that, they’re the only people in town who do.

Kim first threw a tantrum in 1994, and Bill Clinton rewarded him with promises of nuclear-energy technology in return for halting his nuclear-arms program. The deal went sour only when Kim repudiated it and threw out the international inspectors. When Kim launched his Taepodong-1 nuclear missile in 1999, the Clinton administration tried to negotiate a deal whereby the United States would launch North Korea’s missile tests in return for a halt of the North Korean nuclear program. That idea, perhaps the goofiest of all, evaporated in late December 2000 only because Bill Clinton was preoccupied with selling various pardons to domestic evil-doers as his term expired. Now some of the weakest sisters in the president’s party are eager for more appeasement. Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is eager to reward Kim with the direct two-party talks he most yearns for. So far, President Bush says no deal. But the Dear Leader may be measuring presidential resolve, and plotting more provocations.

Pruden on Politics runs on Tuesdays and Fridays.

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