North Korea: Heads Up, Seattle

Kim Jong II may be a nut job, but he's a nuclear nut job.

The real news from last week's May Day rally in Havana came when Fidel Castro, pining for glories 40 years distant, claimed a swaggering, post-Iraq-war United States was poised for invasion of Cuba. If we go in, Castro promised, he'll clean our clocks.

Poor, trash-talkin' Fidel. He sentences 75 more dissidents to jail, executes three would-be refugees who tried to hijack a passenger ferry, pins all the trouble on subterfuge by "Bush's Hitler-like government," and still, he can't buy a real head butt with the American imperialist dogs. What's up? Castro's bent because now that Saddam's done, Kim Jong Il is grabbing for the mantle of anti-American martyrdom.

It must grate to be outdone by the leader of another ex-Soviet puppet state half a world away. Like Castro, the second-generation psychopath running the Democratic People's Republic of (North) Korea also warns his subjects of impending American attacks. Quite regularly. But there's greater credence to Kim's cries of Wolfowitz, er, wolf.

A fruitcake in a jumpsuit, Kim has really burnished his brand as an international menace. He observes, "The Earth doesn't need to exist if there is no North Korea." He's already got one or two nuclear weapons; has turned his nuclear reactor back on; and threatens to reprocess his 8,000 spent plutonium rods. That could power another six to eight nukes. Kim could also develop nuclear-weapons-grade enriched uranium for another two nukes per year. He's signaling willingness to test his weapons and has already been selling nonnuclear missiles, to the tune of an estimated $560 million in 2001.

Now he says he'll back off on nuclear weapons only if we and our supposed allies (South Korea, Japan, and China) first provide more economic, energy, and humanitarian aid for his regimeand presumably his cowed, starving subjects.

Puget Sound should care. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says the CIA reports that North Korea has "the missile capacity to destroy the West Coast." The first 20 interceptors in the proposed new U.S. missile defense system would be mostly in Alaska, the rest in California.

The possibility of North Korea selling nuclear materials for less advanced uses by terrorists may be far likelier than warheads whizzing into Safeco Field. Kim's state-run drug smuggling ring already peddles opium, heroin, and amphetamines for a robust $500 million to $1 billion annually, and U.S. officials in South Korea tell The Wall Street Journal they're quite concerned the network could be converted to selling nuclear fuel.

So it's timely that on Monday, May 12, Seattle authorities are to stage a preparedness drill based on a "dirty," or radioactive, bomb scenario. It's part of a federally coordinated exercise called TopOff2, which includes a fake terrorist attack with plague germs at Chicago's two airports.

Kim may pose a real threat to Seattle, but at least we don't have to live in his country. According to the respected compendium, The Black Book of Communism, 1.5 million people have died in North Korean concentration camps (other estimates are higher); 100,000 in North Korean communist party purges; and 500,000 from famine. A recent Time article puts North Korea's famine death toll far higher, at about 2 million in the mid-'90s alone.

Human Rights Watch reports widespread arbitrary arrests and detentions in North Korea, suspension of all freedoms, abuses by kangaroo courts, and torture and degradation in labor and prison camps, where some detainees survive on roasted rat.

North Korean women escaping to China are forced into sexual slavery or arranged marriages with violently abusive husbands. Others are returned home to imprisonment and, perhaps, death.

North Korea's weapons fetish stems from respect never earned and the catastrophic failure of communism. All this is reflected in the brutal totalitarian state, a gross domestic product not even 5 percent of South Korea's, and the famines. The moral currency of doing nothing about the root causeKimplummets over time.

The recent, though unsuccessful, multilateral talks on North Korea, held in Beijing, at least represent a fresh start at diplomacy. Still, if Kim won't disarm before we give more aid, hard choices could follow. As risky as taking out Kim's regime might be, playing his sick game of "chicken" ad infinitum makes even less sense.

But with Kim's finger on the red button, we'd need to draw on our ample reserves of Yankee ingenuity. And, given our other commitments, build our military reserves.

Beyond all the brinksmanship is a growing desperation. Visiting the North Korean countryside, Christopher Hitchens wrote in Newsweek of seeing "people . . . scavenging individual grains from the fields and washing themselves in open sewers." North Korea is a fish rotting from the head down. Before long, the head and nervous system may have to be excised.

Seattle writer Matt Rosenberg contributes to local, state, and national publications. He can be reached at

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