- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Just days before Barack Obama was sworn in the rulers of North Korea threw him a challenge. They told Selig Harrison of the left-wing Center for International Policy, a longtime apologist for North Korea who was there on his 11th trip, that they now have “weaponized” the 30.8 kilos of plutonium they previously reported having. This is said to be enough to make four or five nuclear weapons.

They also told Mr. Harrison, who met with senior-level officials, they would stop disabling their old nuclear facility unless they receive 200,000 tons of fuel oil from Japan or another member of the six-party talks. Apparently the United States, China, South Korea and Russia have each sent that amount of oil to North Korea, but Japan is holding out for a fuller accounting of Japanese citizens the North kidnapped. Officials in the North also are demanding completion of the two light-water nuclear reactors promised during the Clinton administration and partially constructed before being abandoned under President George W. Bush.

Then on Jan. 17, a North Korean Foreign Ministry official said normalization of diplomatic relations with Washington and disposition of the North’s nuclear weapons “are entirely different issues,” adding, “we cannot live without nuclear deterrence.” This discards one of the State Department’s carrots for North Korea, the promise of diplomatic relations in exchange for denuclearization. More important, it shows Pyongyang has no intention of disarming or ending its nuclear weapons program.

Just hours after that announcement, a spokesman for the North Korean Army General Staff publicly attacked South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, calling him a “traitor” and promising “all-out confrontation” against the South. This forced the South Korean Army on high alert just in time for Mr. Obama’s Inauguration.

North Korea always can be counted on to rattle sabers or engage in histrionics to get America’s attention. Now the North is trying to get President Obama’s attention in the hope he will open the aid floodgates. The North wants from Washington both more attention and as much money, food and fuel as it can get, and means to give nothing significant in return. Its construction of a nuclear facility in Syria, destroyed last year by Israeli planes, shows it has no intention of stopping its proliferation.

North Korea has been playing a duplicitous diplomatic game for nearly six decades. Talk forever and promise concessions, while making none. Pocket your opponent’s concessions and then demand more. This is the diplomatic morass Barack Obama is entering with his campaign promise of more negotiations and less military confrontation. But only really tough economic sanctions or military confrontation can apply enough pressure to get results.

President Bush took office with public distaste for the North’s gulags, but came to support State Department efforts to appease the North. He lifted the financial sanctions that hurt the North’s rulers, dealt with the North bilaterally instead of only with allies in the six-party talks, and removed the North from the list of terrorist states, and got nothing meaningful in return. The North’s new demands show how mistaken that approach was.

Japan and South Korea under President Lee have been tougher than the United States in dealing with the North. No wonder Pyongyang now wants talks with President Obama. The new president would be well advised to form a strong, unified approach with Japan and South Korea to the North’s nuclear, missile and proliferation activities. A truly unified effort through the Proliferation Security Initiative created during the Bush administration could greatly limit proliferation from the North.

Also important is the plan by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to organize the defense of South Korea under South Korean leadership and move U.S. troops out of Seoul and away from the demilitarized zone. That effort is well under way and is due to be completed in 2012, with improved operational readiness for South Korean forces. It will help negate North Korea’s claim that the United States is occupying the South and threatening the North.

A strong South Korea-led force, a resolute Japanese ally, powerful units of the Pacific Fleet offshore, and stand-off U.S. air power present a formidable deterrent to any new military adventures by the North. Also, missile defenses operational in Alaska and California, on land in Japan and South Korea, and on board allied naval forces at sea, reduce the threat of the North’s primitive nuclear weapons and missiles.

President Obama must keep these forces in place and plans for their expansion and improvement on track. As a history buff, he should review the futile record of dealing with North Korea, ignore the histrionics and refrain from any further appeasement.

James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in Carlsbad, Calif.

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