Suppose someone asked you what you really wanted for a birthday present, and your answer was “my own private H-bomb”? Suppose you wanted to impress your primary enemy of 70 years, which happened to be the greatest power on earth, by blowing it off—and the powers-that-be were asleep at the switch? Suppose both happened at the same time?
The timing of North Korea’s nuclear explosion this week is easily explained: It happened a few days before Kim Jong Un turned 33, on January 8. Their last nuclear test was four days before his recently deceased father Kim Jong Il’s birthday on February 16, 2013. Since the first test in 2006, all four have occurred at roughly three-year intervals. Adding more weight to this week’s celebration, Kim Il Sung, grandfather to Kim Jong Un and founder of this benighted country and its peculiar brand of “socialism in one family,” arrived back in Pyongyang in 1945 from his anti-Japanese guerrilla adventures and quickly consolidated power—at the age of 33. Thus the regime finds ever-more-obvious ways to coif and exalt the grandson in the image of Kim Il Sung, circa the late 1940s. These birthdays will soon all be holidays (two are already), and if this dynasty persists through a few more generations, birthday holidays will come one after another, to the great relief of its hardworking masses, just as the anniversaries of A-bomb tests are celebrated no end.
Suppose, halfway around the world in Washington, no one is paying attention? Now and then shadowy intelligence sources report activity around the North’s test site at Punggye-ri in the country’s far northeast, suggesting an upcoming A-bomb test. Sometimes they get it right, most times they don’t. This time there was not a hint of an imminent big bang—except from Kim Jong Un, who boasted of having an H-bomb last month. Perhaps the intelligence folks were recovering from New Year’s benders. But then Washington never does seem to get the point, even when bludgeoned with big bombs and long-range missiles. Shortly after Barack Obama entered the White House, Pyongyang chose our Memorial Day to blast off its second A-bomb. So far as I could tell, no one noticed the coincidence. Another much-heralded missile test occurred on July 4, 2006. Birthdays and memorial days mean so much to North Koreans; they must have a team scouring the American calendar for holidays that they can punctuate dramatically, not realizing that most Americans are at the beach.
If Kim’s birthday was the timing, the strategy is to bump Washington off its stance so that there is nothing to talk about with Pyongyang except how it will dismantle and destroy its nuclear capability. Washington calls this policy “strategic patience.” It is unquestionably patient; nothing productive in regard to North Korea has emanated from the White House in seven years. But it isn’t very strategic in that it opens a clear venue for the North to invest in more bombs and more missiles. Knowledgeable experts say they will probably have 20 nuclear weapons by 2020, with some believing they have already miniaturized nuclear warheads for their missiles. Obama is not the only president to blame, however. Since Bill Clinton’s first term, the default form of “strategic patience” has been to wait until North Korea collapses (with George W. Bush adding the fillip that he would help it collapse, by virtually declaring war: putting it in his “axis of evil” and targeting it for preemptive strikes in the September 2002 “Bush Doctrine”). Even Clinton’s biggest achievement, the 1994 deal that froze the North’s plutonium facility for eight years, was predicated on the regime’s inevitable collapse.