Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Kim Makes Things Unpleasant for His Handlers

While the rest of us were watching the Discovery launch and enjoying fireworks, Kim Jong Il decided to have his own display in North Korea. Of course, there was no coincidence in timing. It was a direct thumb of the nose at the U.S. But that should surprise nobody. Nor was I astounded by the fact that the ICBM seemed to be more of a model rocket, expiring after an embarrassing 40 seconds, and probably landing the rocket scientist who designed it in a nice North Korean jail. But the most interesting aspect of it all is who else was upset by the launches.

Kim meant to mess with the U.S. insofar as timing and the fact of launch are concerned. He also rattled South Korea and Japan, its free regional neighbors who have the most to lose from any type of attack. But Kim also is going to be hearing it from China and Russia, because they both came out of the launches with a major loss of pride.

One would expect the U.S., Japan and South Korea to have a fit over this matter. And they indeed have, with Japan taking the lead. But most surprisingly, the Russians are apoplectic. To a very significant degree, Russia is to blame for the fact that North Korea can launch launch missiles, given that its missile program is SCUD-based. That fact is encouraging, only in the sense that SCUD systems are largely junk, meaning that North Korea is going to have a hard time being anything but a regional problem. But that is small comfort when two of our best trading partners and allies--South Korea and Japan--are easily within the known range of the North. But none of this has anything to do with Putin's Russia becoming any more of a responsible member of the world community. Because while having a crackpot missileman on their border is not a pleasant thing, Russia is more concerned about its pocketbook and prestige than regional peace.

As Russia's business interests have expanded, so have its vulnerabilities, and it's not great for business to have an unhinged little troublemaker threatening shipping interests in the Sea of Japan and the Western Pacific. And while the North is good at keeping a strategic and economic competitor in the form of the U.S. busy, it's not all that great for them when Kim sees nothing wrong with troubling the interests of Moscow. This was an unneeded complication.

Which brings us to China, who is not-so-strangely silent on the matter. We've all seen the parents, seething over the behavior of their children in public, longing for the moment when they could bring a little justice to their children's lives in private. So at this moment, a likely embarrassed and furious Beijing is preparing to take the naughty little Kim to the woodshed, for all the good it will do. And while diplomats put on a socially polite face and appear to ignore the realities of international politics, the current chief diplomat of the United States is no fool, nor are her counterparts in Russia, Japan and China.

To a significant degree Kim exists for the pleasure of the People's Republic of China. He functions as little more than a convenient toady who, as with the Russian calculus, is able to keep the U.S., South Korea and Japan busy as China goes about flexing its economic muscles and securing access to energy resources to fuel its growing economy. And China looks almost responsible whenever it periodically deals the North a paddling to keep it in check for another month or so. But how useful is a toady when the other kids finally get tired of him and beat him up?

The problem China faces is not that North Korea is behaving in an unneighborly fashion, but rather that it is behaving in an unnecessarily provocative and dangerous manner, for China couldn't possibly care less how irritating the North is for its neighbors or for the U.S. Because it really exists only to run interference for the Chicoms as noted above. But when the little lackey decides to come into his own, and tries to put himself in the same league as the big boys, he often takes the beating for which he had been begging, causing his own benefactor to become distracted as he tries to clean up the mess.

And while we once had the comfort of being able to look to China to control an unruly Kim Jong Il, it seems that Kim has left the ranch, which may mean that he will end up dealing with a rather motivated group of nations who now have fewer concerns about putting him in is place--or perhaps taking him out of it.

So in a very real sense, the monster they created has become a significant liability for them, causing them to spend as much time and energy dealing with the North as they had intended the West to do. Kim was meant to be nothing more than an itch for the U.S. to scratch. Instead, China and Russia let their brat kid play freely in their gun cabinet, and allowed him to spurn their discipline. And now it seems that little Kim's antics may leave him dealing with the lawmen. And if that happens, and the U.S., South Korea and Japan must do some dirty work, it will only serve to increase their regional influence to the detriment of the local totalitarian powers who would be left looking stupid in the wake of such events.

And nobody needs an even more aloof China and Russia.

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