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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

What does North Korea want?

Like a spoiled child who wants more attention, North Korea has been acting up recently in ways that demand the world respond. Nuclear tests followed quickly by missile tests followed by more missile tests, and now those two U.S. journalists sentenced to twelve years of hard labor for having gotten lost near the North Korean/Chinese border. It can't be coincidence.

How good -- and beneficent -- a government is can be measured pretty directly by how much freedom of the press it allows, and North Korea ranks pretty much near the bottom there. One can be clapped into a hellish North Korean prison for saying anything the least bit critical of Kim Jong-il. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is anything but.

(This measure was perhaps the most obvious sign of how totalitarian the old Soviet bloc countries were. And when a formerly vibrant press in an ostensibly free country like Venezuela is muzzled by the likes of a Hugo Chavez, that tells you pretty much all you need to know about him. Two other obvious measures of a democracy are whether there are legitimate elections and whether people are allowed to leave the country, and North Korea scores at the bottom there as well.)

The question is, what does Kim Jong-il want? In the past North Korea has effectively gotten bribes from the West to tone down its aggressiveness posturing, but this time around the North Koreans have raised the ante. Do they just want bigger bribes? Or do they actually intend to use those bombs?

I think the capture of the two U.S. journalists is actually a good sign. The only reason they would want those two is for use as bargaining chips -- which means they want to bargain.

But whether the West is in the mood to respond to North Korea with a carrot or a stick this time around remains to be seen. Obama far prefers the carrot (unless you're an American taxpayer), but eventually, all naughty children get punished.

Stay tuned.

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